Torah Commentary Based on the first verse of the parsha

Parashat Vayikra / פרשת ויקרא
Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26

The very first word of the third Book of the Torah, Leviticus, vayikra, teaches a lot of powerful lessons. The word means “he called”. However, what is really interesting has to do with the aleph at the end of the word. Because it is smaller than the rest of the letters in the Torah it practically shouts at us to ask “why” or, more appropriately "what is the lesson here". Please note that this is yet another example of what it means to read Torah literally in the Jewish tradition. Every letter, whether as group of letters forming a word, or standing alone has the potential to teach us something.

Here are two life lessons derived from the little aleph:

1:  Pay attention to the small details: Stealth bombers have a tiny sensor that is crucial to keeping the plane flying. Unfortunately humidity throws it off. This was discovered when one of these billion dollar planes crashed. The $1.5 billion Hubble telescope was off by 4 microns resulting in a significant reduction in its capabilities.

2:  Little Deeds Matter: The Torah contains three different size letters, small, medium and large. The vast majority of the letters are medium sized. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter offers this insightful teaching derived from these different sized letters. The large letters correspond with thoughts and beliefs, regular size letters with words and the small letters with deeds.

Thoughts and beliefs are associated with the large letters because these are our meta principles. They help shape how we view and understand the world. The regular size letters correspond to the many words we use to express our thoughts and beliefs. The little letters symbolize our actions. The connection between the little letters and action reminds us that the many little things we do in the world matter.

Parashat Tzav / פרשת צו
Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

Once again we see this very familiar verse.  This week I want to focus on the vav, the first letter of the first word.  Vav is the sixth letter of the alpha-bet.  In the mystical tradition it is often associated with human beings because of two reasons.  It has an upright appearance our ancestors compared to the human spine and it was on the sixth day of creation that Adam and Eve were created.

Vav, also means hook, as in what one might use to hang a curtain on a rod.  This, plus the interesting fact that all but six columns in the Torah begin with a vav, give rise to a fascinating commentary. To truly access the deep wisdom of Torah one needs to pull back the inked letters on the parchment, as if they were a curtain hanging on rings (the vavs) hiding what is behind it.  This teaching asserts that the wisdom contained in the Torah is not in the actual letters and words, but rather, what lies hidden behind or beneath them.  

Let this sink in. This is a truly radical line of commentary.  Essentially it is suggesting that  the words on the parchment are not actually the teachings of the Torah. The real stuff of Torah needs to be revealed, unpacked and unveiled.  Personally, I’m grateful for this teaching from our ancestors.  It provides me with historical and textual support when I propose non literal ways of understanding Torah.  This is especially important as we move further into the book of Leviticus.

Parashat Shemini / פרשת שמיני 
Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47

וַיְהִי֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁמִינִ֔י קָרָ֣א מֹשֶׁ֔ה לְאַהֲרֹ֖ן וּלְבָנָ֑יו וּלְזִקְנֵ֖י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃
On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel.

This week’s Torah portion is named for the number eight, shemini, the third word in the opening verse. In the Jewish tradition numbers are packed with deep meaning. The Hebrew letter that corresponds with the number eight is chet, ח. The name, chet, besides representing a number, also refers to when a marksman “misses the mark”. In the context of human behavior chet has come to mean sin, but what it really means is to miss-behave.

Typical we tend to think of misbehavior as something negative. We generally think of children who misbehave as problems. We rarely reward misbehavior unless by accident it produces some sort of positive result. More invidious is that misbehaving all to easily becomes labled as a sin, which then is implies a moral judgement.

This is seriously unfortunate. Misbehaving is a very important part of living because it is the essence of how we learn, refine and improve. Only two kinds of people do not misbehave: those who are perfect and those who are dead. Fortunately there are no perfect people. Unfortunately we all die. In the psalms, 115.17 its say, “the dead cannot praise the LORD”. If the dead cannot praise the LORD, and the dead cannot misbhave, then perhaps to misbehave is also a way to praise to God.

Indeed, this very lesson is inherent in the word chet through the magic of gematria. Chet is spelled ח. ט. א. which is ח /8 + ט/9 + א/1 = 18. 18 is, of course, comprised of the two letters ח י which spells Life! In short, to misbehave is to be alive!

Parashat Tazria-Metzora /פרשת תזריע-מצרע 
Leviticus 12:1 - 15:33

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃ 
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:

We’ve seen this verse before. This time I’m going to parse the second word, י/ ה/ ו/ ה, yod-hey-vav-hey, also known as the Tetragrammaton, or the four letter name of God. The first important noteworthy aspect of the Tetragrammaton is that it is a form of the verb “to be”. In Hebrew the verb “was” is spelled hey, yod, hey / היה; the verb “is” is hey, vav, vav, hey / הווה; the verb “to be” is yod, hey, yod, hey / יהיה. This strongly suggests that the Tetragrammaton is a fourth verb form. I used to think this meant that it was a verb meaning something like “was, is, will be”, whatever that means. Now I’m more inclined to say that this represents a state of being that I lack the wherewithal to conceive of, let alone verbally express. In any case, this means that God/Adonai/י/ ה/ ו/ ה is grammatically a verb, not a noun.

In addition, the three letters that comprise the tetragramton have a dual purpose in the Hebrew Bible. They are at times consonants and at other times they are vowels. The three letters yod, hey and vav make it possible for us to read and understand the Torah! Without them the Torah would be a meaningless string of consonants. The theological implications of both these insights into the Tetragrammaton are mind bending.

Parashat Achrei Mot / פרשת אחרי מות 
Leviticus 16:1 - 18:30
The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD.

Previously I've made the case that theologically I don't speak of God as a noun/thing. Therefore, it is fair to ask how do I understand what it means to say that drawing too close to God is deadly? I understand the phrase "drawing close to God" as a metonymy for religious fervor. In other words, too much religion can be dangerous, if not deadly.

Achrei Mot is the same Torah portion we read on Yom Kippur, which is also replete with death imagery and symbolism. I want to consider the connection between death and Yom Kippur in a very different direction. Specifically, too little religion can also be dangerous both to the self and mainly Jewish community.

The practice of limiting one's engagement with Jewish community to just Yom Kippur (and Rosh Hashanah) has metastasized into a ritual that is literally leading to the demise of pluralistic Judaism on both a communal and personal level. On a communal level many non-orthodox communities are closing shop due to a lack of participation and funds. On a personal level Judaism is increasingly no longer a relevant source of meaning for many people and so it is abandoned.

It is truly a mystery to me that the one or two times of the year so many people seek out a connection to Judaism is when we have the longest and arguably the most challenging (boring?) services of the year. Alas, pluralistic Judaism is slowly dying a death by a thousand little cuts because of this strange "ritual".

Parashat Emor / פרשת אמור
Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו׃

The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin.

Although the translation of this verse appears straight forward this is not exactly what’s there in the Hebrew.  The clause actually says “none shall make himself tamei on account of any of your people”.  The word dead is not actually there in the Hebrew, hence the brackets.  Why do translators add in the word?

A few verses later the Torah explicitly mentions encounters with dead bodies.  Thus, the assumption is that the translation which adds it in brackets is to remind us that this verse too is about contact with the dead. A learned colleague suggests that is an example of a kind of  terse style of writing found in the Bible. 

I’m incredulous that this is just a stylistic thing.  After all, there are three Hebrew words for a dead body, nevelah, peger and gufah, yet the original writer(s) chose not to include one.  An omission like this does not seem like it is just terse writing.  I suggest that we need to find a different way to understand what’s going on here.

The words nefesh and tamei hint at a possible explanation.  Nefesh refers to the essence of a person.  Later in history when the body/spirit duality emerges nefesh evolves to to mean soul.  The meaning of tamei is obscure.  We know that it is a condition or status to which everyone is susceptible.  It is transient and undesirable. Although, one most be extremely careful to not become tamei, it is unavoidable.  In the context of our verse I’m inclined to understand it as some sort of corruption.  In effect, the Torah seems to be saying to the Kohanim and their descendants, which is a biblical way of saying leaders, you need to be exceedingly careful to not allow your very essence to become corrupted, i.e., tamei.

For me the lesson of this verse is that those in leadership positions need to be vigilant against becoming corrupt.  Maybe I’m reading too much into the omission of any specific reference to a corpse.  But then that is the beauty of reading the Torah “literally”.  There is no mention of corpse or death in this verse anywhere.  Thus, to me the opening verse of this week's Torah portion reads like a warning to leaders:  avoid having your essence become corrupted.

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai / פרשת בהר־בחקתי: Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34
וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה בְּהַ֥ר סִינַ֖י לֵאמֹֽר׃
The LORD spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai:

According to tradition we don't know the exact location of Mt Sinai. In addition, the Torah calls the site of revelation by two different names, Mt Sinai and Mt. Horeb. It is striking and instructive that the site of the most seminal event in the formation of Judaism is shrouded in mystery. I see this as an invitation to think of “revelation at Mt. Sinai” as something much more than an event in time at a specific location.

I understand Mt. Sinai and revelation as two components of the experience of expanded awareness. Restated as a b.g.o. (blinding glimpse of the obvious), we are somewhere (Mt. Sinai) when become aware of something that significantly impacts our life (revelation).

There is a lovely midrash that asserts “wilderness is a necessary condition for every revelation; for every true internalization of the Torah’s teaching: Whoever would wish to acquire Torah must become ownerless like the wilderness.” The theologian and wilderness writer C. Beldan Lane points out that the “austere, unaccommodating landscapes of desert, mountain and heath remind us of the smallness and majesty of Being”. Mt. Sinai is then perhaps not one specific location, but rather a subjective place that is an “austere, unaccommodating landscape” where “revelation” happens, in other words, one experiences “smallness and majesty of Being”.

Where is the Mt. Sinai of your life? What was revealed?

Leviticus Commentaries Based on the Triennial Readings and important Themes.
Vayikra: Leviticus 1:1 - 5.26

The very first word of the Book of Leviticus, vayikra, presents us with a wonderful lesson.  The word means “he called”.  From the context we know that it is God who calls to Moshe.  For me, what is most interesting is that the last letter aleph is always written noticably smaller than the rest of the letters in the Torah.  It practically shouts at us to ask “why?” 

The Sefat Emet, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, offers an insightful explanation.  He points out that in fact the letters in the Torah come in three sizes:  large like the ayin and dalet at the beginning and end of the Shema; regular like the majority of letters in the Torah; and small like the little aleph in vayikra. 

He suggest that the different sizes correspond with thoughts (large), words (regular) and deeds (small).  Thoughts and beliefs, are associated with the large letters because they are the meta principles.  They help shape how we view and understand the world.  The regular letters correspond to words we use to express our thoughts and beliefs.  Since we are constantly in search of the right words to articulate our beliefs and thoughts we need many words.  Finally, the little letters symbolize our actions.  The connection between the little letters and action teaches us that the many little things we do in the world matter. 

I like how even the different sizes of letters in the Torah offer us with insight and wisdom.

Shmini: Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47

Leading up to Parashat Sh'mini, the Israelites have begun to use the Tabernacle that they built and have been learning about the laws of sacrifice and the ways of their new relationship with God. At this stage in the history of the people, the priests (Aaron and his sons) are integral to the religious practices of the community. They perform many of the rituals of sacrifice on behalf of the community.

In Parashat Sh'mini, Aaron, the High Priest, comes before God to make offerings of purification and expiation (make amends, apologize) for himself and on behalf of the Israelites. His willingness to do this represents a confession of his own shortcomings, a humble admission of his imperfections and mistakes. It is pretty amazing to think that we human beings have been making mistakes throughout history and we continue to do so. There must be a good reason for that!

Mistakes-we all make them, young and old alike. Although they may be frustrating, mistakes provide parents with a great opportunity to demonstrate for their children how to process and deal with things in a healthy and productive manner. By acknowledging your own mistakes, you reveal that you are not infallible. When you pick yourself up and start again, you are showing your children that it's perfectly acceptable to not be perfect. By looking at mistakes as learning opportunities, by admitting when we miss the mark, we are more open to examining our behavior and determining how not to make the same mistake again. By asking "How can I learn from this?" we are provided with a valuable lesson for ourselves and for our children.

By: Ellen and Peter Allard

Shmini: Leviticus 9:1 - 11:47

We are about halfway through the year the Jewish year.  As if to remind us of this the Torah portion this week is the same one that the reading for Yom Kippur is taken.  Since the portion always falls about halfway through the year it is reasonable to ask is just coincidental or intentional?  If it is just coincidental then at most we might say, “that’s interesting”.  Since there is a rule of thumb that says nothing connected to the Torah is coincidental it must be this way for a reason, that it is, it is intentional.  What then is the Torah (Judaism?) intending for us by this convergence?

I propose that in some organic, evolutionary way this six month reminder serves several purposes.  I am presenting what I think is intended in the form of questions:

#1 How are you doing on the areas in your life you reflected on during the High Holy Days (HHD) that you felt needed attention?

#2  Since both the HHD and Parshat Shmini both deal with boundaries (time for the HHD and space and holy/not holy for Shmini) how are you doing respecting the boundaries in your life?  Are you creating secure boundaries between your holy space and time and the bump and grind of your work-a-day life?

#3  The first chapter in Shmini deals with sin offerings.  Yom Kippur expects us to reflect on our sins from the past year.  In the biblical days sins were expiated through sacrifices.  Today we use the power of teshuvah.  Are there still sins from last year for which you need to do teshuvah?  Are there people (from last year or from this year) from whom you need to ask forgiveness?

Tazria: Leviticus 12:1-13:59

This week's Torah portion introduces the various categories of tumah/impurities emanating from human beings. This is followed by a myriad of permutations of the disease called tzaraat, commonly mistranslated as leprosy.

What tzaraat is, in fact, is very unclear. Rabbinic interpretation based on a later reference of tzaraat suggest that it is some sort of spiritual malaise, for the sin of speaking lashon hara (evil speech), amongst other transgressions and anti-social behavior.

Tazria Leviticus 12:1 - 13:59

If you happen to read this week's Torah portion expect to be mildly grossed out and majorly confused.  Tazria graphically discusses a variety of bodily emissions, discharges and eruptions.  The most common responses to Tazria include "why", "what's the point", "this is in the Bible" and "gross".

Hard as it is relate to this portion I've found at least two points of common interest. First, the ancient Israelites were as uncomfortable with bodily discharges of all sorts as we are today.  How we deal with our discomfort today differs dramatically in form but not in intent.  Bodily discharges, yuch.

Interestingly enough, the second point in common has to do with another topic that makes us uncomfortable: synagogue dues.  Then as today our communities are populated by people with different financial means.  Today we manage this with scholarships, dues abatement, special discounted rates etc.  Our biblical ancestors also wrestled with economic diversity within their community.  According to chapter 12, vs 8 "if her means suffice not for a lamb, then she shall take two turtle-doves, or two young pigeons". Seems both generations of people shared some of the same problems and came up with similar solutions.

Metzorah Leviticus 14:1 - 15:33

Wisely, our ancestors never limited themselves to a literal reading of the Torah.  This week's Torah portion is a great example of how they were able to mine gems from the most arcane passages.  Metzorah deals extensively with a mysterious ailment called tzarat, mistakenly labeled as leprosy.  The reality is that we have no idea what it is, nor did our ancestors.  They, however, intuited that this condition is likely a metaphor for something else.  They justified this possibility by linking what is described in Metzorah with a Torah portion in Numbers where Miriam, Moses' sister, is punished with tzarat for speaking badly of her brother.  From this connection they concluded tzarat was a punishment for slander.

Granted, it is a stretch to find a connection between white patches on skin or the walls of a house and gossip. In fact, what these earliest commentators were doing was impressing up their students the seriousness of gossip and slander.  In other words, they saw this Torah portion as hyperbole.  They understood (what many of us seem to forget) that gossip and slander is like a dangerous and insidious infection that is harmful on many levels.

Achrei Mot/ Kedoshim Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

“Ben Bag Bag said: Turn the Torah over and over for everything is in it…”  Perkei Avot 5:25

In an odd way Achrei Mot indirectly supports this idea while providing instructions to the priests, Israelites and by extension us about how to deal with blood and death.  The Torah portion begins with a reference to the deaths of Aaron’s two sons and another deadly warning.  Then further on it talks about blood.  Finally it instructs the priests to wash themselves in pure water after being in contact with blood and death. Death, blood and washing, does this sound familiar?

In the mid nineteenth century Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis wanted to figure out why so many women in maternity wards were dying from puerperal fever — commonly known as childbed fever.  After following several false leads he eventually hypothesized that cadaverous particles were being transferred by medical students and doctors after doing autopsies to women as they were delivering their babies and causing their death.  To prove if his theory was correct he started having everyone wash their hands and tools with chlorine, a superb cleanser.  In fact, he used it because of its smell rather than its effectiveness as cleaning solution.  Although Semmelweis didn’t actually know why it worked, he had nevertheless discovered that washing somehow prevented the onset of childbed fever. Not for nothing, doctors in 1845  didn’t know much more about the spread of  disease than the ancient Israelite priests 3500 hundred years ago.

It is hard to dismiss that the authors of Leviticus had not intuited a similar connection between blood, death and washing as had Semmelweis.  Ironically, we are as dismissive of the potential wisdom of the teachings of Leviticus as the medical profession was about hand washing for many years after Semmelweis’ discovery.  Indeed, even as recently as twenty-five years ago  the CDC published a report titled “Hand Washing - The Semmelweis Lesson Forgotten?”  Perhaps Ben Bag Bag was right.

Achrei Mot/ Kedoshim Leviticus 16:1 - 20:27

Speak to all the congregation of the Israelites, and say to them, "You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy". (19.2)

Reb Menahem Mendl of Worka explained that this does not mean that one must attain the level of angels, something which is impossible. All that is expected us of is to strive to the level of which we are capable. Be holy: in whatever circumstances you find yourself; strive to increase in your holiness little by little in your holiness.

Emor Leviticus 21:1 - 24:23

On the same day it will be eaten; you will leave none of it until the morrow; I am the Lord. (22:30)

This passage can be understood in light of a teaching from the Talmud (Sotah 48), that whoever has food for the present and says, "what will I eat tomorrow?" is of little faith. From this we learn two important lessons. First, strive to live in the moment and do not worry about what will come tomorrow. Second, have faith that tomorrow will be as full of blessings as today.

 Leviticus 25:1 - 27:34

When you come into the land which I give you, then will the land keep a sabbath to the Lord. (25.2)

Shabbat for people affirms our basic right to be free from the abuses of slavery. Torah extends this same basic right to the earth by teaching that it too has intrinsic value, above and beyond how it benefits us. Attributed to Rabbi Yitzhak Breuer

© Copyright Rabbi Howard A Cohen