Today we begin reading the book of Leviticus. Vayikra. And He called. It is a book that is mostly about the priestly code. How should the priests act, what do they do, how do they perform all those animal sacrifices.
It is the policy and procedure manual for their job. And their job is to bring the people of Israel closer to G-d through those animal sacrifices. It seems archaic. Outdated. We no longer offer animal sacrifices to be one with G-d.
One of my professors, Rabbi Nehemia Polen talks about it as a reset button. What the priests were trying to do was to recreate that moment at Sinai when we all stood there. There is smoke and fire and quaking and shaking. There is incense and offering—something that goes up, an olah, a rising. And somehow that is supposed to connect us with the Divine and allow us to have a relationship.
You have heard me say this before. The word religion, from the Latin, means to tie back up. People are seeking a relationship, often to replace something they no longer have. When we are children our primary relationship is with our parents, who (attempt) to love us unconditionally. When we leave home, we need to replace that primary relationship and we search for something, or someone else.
Think about it from the Bible’s perspective. When G-d created man, Adam, G-d said it was not good for man to be alone so G-d created a helpmate, a partner, Eve. After Sarah died, Isaac took Rebecca to his tent and he loved her and was comforted.
Today’s portion also talks about relationship. There is a midrash about the very beginning of Leviticus. In that first word, Vayikra, the aleph at the end in every Torah, is written smaller, appearing to float above the line. As Rabbi Peg Kershenbaum tells it, “Without the aleph, you might think that G-d met Moses by chance. Looking over Moses’s shoulder, as it were, G-d says, “this was no accidental meeting. I called to you from this Tent of Meeting. I’m here, now that you’ve spent all these chapters building me a dwelling. Put back the aleph, if you please. Moses, flustered says, “But I wrote, He was dear to Moses.” To this God says, “Hmm, But maybe someone in the future would think (and they’d be wrong), that you meant, “He was cold toward Moses!” (because kar means cold) Put back the aleph so they know.” So Moses wrote the aleph as G-d commanded in a modest but conspicuous way.”
There is another midrash about an aleph. We don’t really know what happened on Mount Sinai.
From Rabbi Larry Kushner’s Book of Miracles: “No one really knows for certain what happened at Mount Sinai. Some people believe that G-d dictated the entire Torah word for word. Others believe that it included the Oral Law as well. Some believe that G-d inspired Moses. In Makot 23a and b, the rabbis of the Talmud were having just such an argument—what happened at Sinai. It teaches us that G-d didn’t give the ten commandments, but only the first two sayings. One who remembers that there is a G-d who frees people and who has no other gods will be religious. Another rabbi argued that it was just the first saying. Still another said that it was just the first word of the first saying, Anochi. But Rabbi Mendl Torum of Rymanov said, “Not even the first word. All G-d said was the first letter of the first word of the first saying, the first letter of the Alef-bet, alef” Now this is somewhat problematic, since Alef is silent. Almost but not perfectly. You see alef makes a tiny, little sound that is the beginning of every sound. Open your mouth (go ahead, do it). Stop! That is alef. G-d made the voice of Alef so quiet that if you made any other noise you wouldn’t be able to hear it. At Sinai, all the people of Israel needed to hear was the sound of Alef. It meant that G-d and the Jewish people could have a conversation.”
So the aleph gives us the opportunity to have a relationship with G-d. To tie back up into something. To bind ourselves to something important.
We no longer have animal sacrifice as a way to make us whole. What are we to do? Last night we read the section from the midrash:
Once, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple, Rabbi Y’hoshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Y’hoshua looked at the Temple ruins and said “Alas for us!! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel lies in ruins!” Then Rabbi Yohannan ben Zakkai spoke to him these words of comfort: ‘Be not grieved, my son. There is another equally meritorious way of gaining ritual atonement, even though the Temple is destroyed. We can still gain ritual atonement through deeds of loving-kindness. For it is written “Loving kindness I desire, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6) Avot D’Rabbi Nathan 4:5
Acts of lovingkindness is how we make ourselves whole, how we tie back up into something, how we are holy.
Today is a reset button of another sort. Today, 30 years ago on the Hebrew calendar, I married my bashert—my destined one. My beloved. We were an improbable pair. He was older than I. He was recently separated with three kids. I was young and still mourning the death of my first love.
He wanted to learn more Hebrew. We both had wanted to be rabbis. He wanted conversation and a friend. I am not sure what I wanted but he had these gorgeous blue eyes and an intensity—particularly around spirituality, something my parents askewed, and around making the world a better place, about tikkun olam. We had long arguments about prayer and G-d and the difference between social action and social justice. We still argue about those things. We taught Hebrew School together and we took his 8th grade class to Washington for the rally for Soviet Jews. We lived out that curriculum as our feet were praying. I drove the van and he taught those kids the prophets, all the way from Boston to Virginia. Somewhere in Maryland he waxed poetic about the Cows of Bashan in Amos and told those kids that he loved me because my deep, brown eyes were like cows. Those kids, now adults with kids of their own still talk about it and how they held the sign at the rally for Peter Paul and Mary. We still sing Light One Candle.
That song became our rallying cry. It was a song we heard on our first date, a Peter Paul and Mary concert. It was the song we used at the Havdalah the night before our wedding. And again at Sarah’s baby naming.
What is the memory that’s valued so highly
That we keep alive in that flame?
What’s the commitment to those who have died
That we cry out they’ve not died in vain?
We have come this far always believing
That justice would somehow prevail
This is the burden, this is the promise
This is why we will not fail!
Just before we got married my father had a piece of advice for Simon, something that worked well for him in his own marriage. Simon should just say, “Yes, dear.” We have discovered that it doesn’t work very well. This is not the same phrase as the midrash about Moses and G-d. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It is condescending and designed to acquiesce but not really agree. In the book the book group is reading this month, the Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader is given a piece of advice by her mother-in-law, Evelyn Ginsburg, to be just before her wedding, “I’m going to tell you the secret of a happy marriage. It helps to be a little bit deaf.” RGB extends that teaching, “Sometimes people say unkind or thoughtless things, and when they do, it is best to be a little hard of hearing–to tune out and not snap back in anger or impatience.”
A woman of valor which Simon read to me last night says, “the law of kindness is on her tongue. I admit we are still working on that one. I am not always the easiest person to live with. Marriage isn’t easy. There have been ups and downs. Learning to navigate the roller coaster isn’t easy.
There is a lovely children’s story—the Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco which seems particularly poignant as we have been telling stories of our journeys all year, our incredible journeys.
When Patricia’s great grandmother came to the United States, the only things she had from her old home in Russia were her dress and her babushka which she liked to throw up in the air like she was dancing. When she outgrew her dress, her mother made a quilt to help her remember home. The border of the quilt was the babushka. The quilt became the tablecloth for Shabbat meals. When she fell in love, her husband gave her a gold coin for wealth, a dried flower for love and a piece of rock salt so their lives would have flavor. They were married under the quilt as chuppah. They wrapped their baby in the quilt to welcome her to the family. The baby was given gold, flower, salt and bread. Gold so she would never know poverty, a flower so she would always know love, salt so her life would always have flavor and bread so she would never know hunger. When her daughter grew up and got married, in the wedding bouquet she carried a gold coin, bread and salt. She welcomed her daughter to the world wrapped in the quilt. When her daughter married, again there was gold, bread and salt in the bouquet. Patricia was welcomed to the world with the quilt. It was the tablecloth at her first birthday party. It was the quilt she pretended was a bullfighter’s cape or tent in the steaming Amazon jungle. When she was married it was the chuppah and she carried gold, bread and salt and a sprinkle of wine so she would always know laughter. She then welcomed her daughter into the world with the same quilt.
But there is something else. Early in our relationship, we stopped to tell one particular couple we were going to get married. Nancy was digging in the garden. She stood up, hugged us with those muddy hands and exclaimed, “Alyn, get the champagne.” From this we learned a very important lesson. Always have a bottle of champagne in your fridge. You never know when you might need to toast the big moments—like today—or the little moments, day by day by day. We invite you to join us to celebrate this milestone with a toast of l’chaim and a sip of champagne, a mimosa, just as we did 30 years ago.
Today is a reset button. He still has those blue eyes. He still has that intensity, that deep thinking, the soul of a poet, the commitment to tikkun olam and making this world a better place. He still cares passionately and quite simply I still love him.
So I repeat the words of my Bat Mitzvah haftarah, that we read to Oeach other at our wedding:
I am my beloved and my beloved is mine.
Arise my love, my fair one and come away with me,
For lo, the winter is past
The Rain is over and gone
The flowers appear on the earth
The time of singing has come
Arise my love, my fair one and come away.