There was a time when children began the study of Torah not in the beginning at Bereshit (Genesis), but by delving into the middle of the Torah at Vayikrah (Leviticus), the detailed instruction for Temple sacrifices as atonements for wrongdoing. According to midrash, children’s innocence was linked to the sacrificial laws of purity, and the study of Vayikrah was deemed preferential to other texts as the place to start.[i] In contemporary times, it is hard to imagine an introduction to Torah study with a text so devoid of narrative or character development. Even as an adult, I usually skim over the book of Vayikrah, holding my breath in resistance while searching for a way in.
This week, I set the intention to study Parshat Vayikrah (Leviticus 1:1-5:26) with “a beginner’s mind,” a Zen Buddhist concept of exploring a subject, even a difficult one, with total openness and without preconceived notions of past knowledge, like a child seeing something for the first time. I read the text delighting in my own lack of understanding and feeling the text on a visceral level of my body. What would it smell like? What would it taste like? What would it feel like on my hands? What would it sound like to be in that space?
First, I read the words in translation and was surprised to feel my stomach churn. Food, there is a lot of food and some of it is delicious, even though the preparation is repulsive and messy. I know this feeling. This is like standing in the kitchen, preparing a holiday meal, with my children running around, our dogs patiently waiting underfoot for scraps of entrails. My husband is unloading bags of fresh produce and flowers, as I am at the sink elbow deep in cleaning a kosher bird, annoyingly under-processed and still feathered. I am whispering words gratitude to the bird and words of indignation at the butcher. The space is filled with smells of burnt toast, lemon and baking soda I use to scrub the counters, compost overflowing with potato peels and carrot tops, and errant egg whites that have seeped into the stovetop and are now baking in unreachable places. The sounds are percussive, punctuated with shrieks of laughter and sometimes exasperation at something one of the kids did in the middle of the chaos. It is the full catastrophe of life.
What are we doing here, in this familiar place? We are preparing to share a meal under the shining face of a full moon because our grandparents and their grandparents and the ancients before them did a version of this thing that we are about to do. I can taste my grandmother’s recipes on my tongue, their textures and smells easily accessible in my memory. I choose a different recipe for my kids as they giggle and cringe at my stories of fish heads, cow tongues, and chicken livers with crispy onions served as delicacies at my grandmother’s table. She is far away, yet also nearby, as we share stories etched into the memory of my skin, my nose, and my tastebuds.
I return to the text in Hebrew. I try to dash through the text with the same fizzy energy of reading it in translation, but I am drawn into the Hebrew as if magnetically pulled to stop right here and stay. I remain motionless at the last letter of the first word. There it is, a shy version of itself, simply asking to be explored by being smaller than the rest. It calls me in the silence of its contraction. “Remember the essence of all you are about to read, all you are about to do,” the letter Aleph whispers. “Remember Mt. Sinai and the direct experience of the Presence in the holy silence of the first letter of—Anochi Adonai Elochecha.”[ii]
Aleph is a silent consonant that is one of the mother letters according to the Sefer Yetzirah, filled with potential for voice. On its own it is simply breath. In combination with other letters or vowels, it gives birth to sound. Its numerical value is one and it symbolizes limitless, unspoken oneness of the Divine. There are many commentaries attempting to answer the question of why the Aleph in the first word of Vayikrah is small. What matters to me right now is that it made me pause and take a deep breath. A portal.
Now, my heart is knocking through my chest and I have no more words. I raise my hands and stand firm on the ground beneath my feet, to emulate the shape of the Aleph. This letter reminds me of Leonardo DaVinci’s Vertuvian man who stands limbs splayed open, one with the architectural lines of nature, art, and language itself. This posture is fully open, exposed, unlocked, receptive. This is my body’s version of “beginner’s mind,” an Aleph that stretches in all directions aware of space beyond space, including the sky above and the earth below, east and west. I feel the silent call and begin to turn and turn and turn, whirling in devotion of all that is.
Later, I will make connections. For now, I am dancing.
When I am back at my desk, back to my folded self, crouching in doubt of my understanding of the text, I remember the words of the Ba’al Shem Tov: “whenever we grasp hold of any part of G-d’s unity, we grasp it in its totality. This is true even when a person holds on to its outermost ‘edge.’”[iii]
So what, if Vayikrah and the sacrificial rites feel incomprehensible and unrelatable? Maybe the details of the instruction manual are less important than finding a way to connect. Maybe it is enough to fall in love with a child-size letter and to dance to the sound of its silent call. And maybe the point is that a drop of infinity is still infinity. And that drop is surely enough.
[i] Vayikrah Rabbah 7:3 “Children are pure; therefore let them study laws of purity”
[ii] Exodus Rabbah 29:7 “When the Holy Blessed One gave the Torah, no bird chirped, no fowl fluttered, no ox lowed, the angels did not fly, the seraphim did not utter ‘holy, holy, holy,’ the sea did not roar, the creatures did not speak; the universe was silent and mute. And the Voice came forth: ‘I am YHVH, your God.’” According to a Hassidic teaching by Rabbi Menachem Mendel “… all that Israel heard directly was the aleph with which in the Hebrew text the first commandment begins, the aleph of the word Anokhi, ‘I’” Gershom Sholem, On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism. Schocken Books (New York: 1996), pg. 30
[iii] Translation of Keter Shem Tov 1:3 by Estelle Frankel, Sacred Therapy. Shambhala (March 8, 2005) 1.295