Vayikra — vav-yod-kuf-reish-aleph [written in miniature] — “And he called.”
— Leviticus/Vayikra 1:1
It is somewhat ironic that the miniature aleph in the first verse of this week’s portion gets so much attention, given that much of the commentary over the centuries has centered around humility, in one way or another, the desire to be “small” — and, therefore, in many midrashim, unnoticed.
Here is just one of the myriad explanations for the small letter:
…one interpretation is that God is modeling good communication skills. In order to truly communicate with another being, whether a person or God, it is necessary to engage in what the mystics called tzimtzum (a drawing in or contracting of oneself), in order to make room for the other partner in the conversation. Were God to simply speak to Moses, then God would be dictating and Moses would be receiving the dictation. By first calling to Moses, God creates a situation whereby God’s Presence has withdrawn inward to create for Moses in the conversation. Moses can now be a partner, rather than a passive recipient. Thus, it becomes clear from the very first word that the content of the book is about relationships. God structures the relationship with Moses so that it is a partnership, one that can have true intimacy.
…Thus a sacrifice cannot simply be viewed as the offering of an animal. The meaning runs far deeper. Whether we are discussing the olah, the all-consuming passion that allows two entities to draw together and ascend upward as one, or we are focusing on the zevach shelamim, the familial love expressed through sharing of the self to create a collective whole, the purpose of Vayikra is not to overwhelm us with rules of how to offer the sacrifices properly; rather, the intention is to emphasize the importance of relationships. The sacrifice itself is merely a means to an end. In this book, the personal “womblike” God teaches us about closeness and intimacy. Being close to God and other human beings is the true message of Vayikra.
— Shoshana Gelfand, “The Book of Relationships,” dvar torah for Vayikra
p. 186, p.190 IN The Women’s Torah Commentary*
Far from the making-small of tzimtzum and the sacrifice-intimacy connection above, Lawrence Kushner takes a making-large view:
In the delicatessen, taped to the underside of the glass case that supports the cash register, right there above the halvah, breath mints, and antacids, is a dollar bill. Mysteriously rolled into that first dollar bill earned by this restaurant is the potential for all future profit. It’s the same way with tomatoes in the garden also. The first one carries the regenerative potential for the species. Only a fool would squander that one. And so with the first issue of any womb. It must actually or (at least) symbolically be returned to the One who gave it, or entirely consumed during a sacral meal. Sacrifice is thus not so much a giving-up but a deal struck with the source of all life, a propitiation, if you will. After a while, centuries, it’s no longer the first of the species–anyone will do–but the idea is the same. And then over the generations, as the ritual ossifies–just an annual donation to the priesthood to keep the whole thing going.
–Lawrence Kushner,* Five Cities of Refuge,** p. 82
* First posted here as remarks of David Mamet, Lawrence Kushner’s study partner and co-author of Five Cities of Refuge; apologies for any confusion. (For more on this interesting partnership, see Terumah: Great Sources).
** Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information.
For those interested in pursuing commentary connections for individual or group study or for preparing to give a congregational dvar torah, see Sacrifice and Womb: Pursuing Connections.
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The “Opening the Book” series is presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group pursuing spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.