Vayikra or Postcard from the Wilderness

vayikraMany of our teachings in Torah were and are revolutionary – in every way from economic to social. In the book of Exodus, of Shemot we were called to remember and keep Shabbat. Let’s try and think for a few minutes about how utterly revolutionary that command was and still is: Stop working. Do not engage in any manner of creative work.

Millennia ago, we were a people who knew nothing but enforced work. And then God demanded we cease and desist from any manner of work that in any way replicated the 39 melachot, the 39 acts of work used to create the Sanctuary, the Mishkan. These activities are symbolic of God’s own creating, but where humans create and alter elements. Be it by plowing or winnowing, sifting or smoothing, shearing or spinning (or any modern-day variations of these kinds of work), we are enjoined by God to rest on Shabbat.  Instead of ceaseless melachah, God wanted us to know joy and rest, menuchahShabbat.

My grandson Jacob came to me one day when he was about 7, and he said, “Bubbe when you are dead, I am going to come and talk to you.”

I said, “Jacob, my sweetheart, I will be dead, you won’t be able to talk with me.” He said, “Bubbe, I will come to you, and if you are work, work, work, I will tell you play, play, play. And if you are play, play, play, I will tell you work, work, work.”  The mouths of babes – and God.

In the book of Vayikra we stay with this concept of learning new commands, our mitzvot, and, importantly, new understandings of ourselves in the world.  With these mitzvot, not only are we entitled to keep a day of sanctity and rest, we are each called upon to understand ourselves as holy, each of us, individually and as a people. We are no longer slaves, we are a free and holy people. We see through these commands a meta-sensibility of sanctity emerging. No wonder our tradition has it that children first learn Torah through the dwelling-place of Vayikra. Vayikra teaches us to raise our children up – to be holy revolutionaries! Vayikra teaches our children – and through them, us, to hold we are sacred. Not sinful. Not wounded. Not empty in need of filling up. Sacred.

This coming Shabbat is also Shabbat Zachor, a Shabbat of Memory. Our Torah reading for this Shabbat traditionally includes a Maftir reading from Deuteronomy 25:17-19, describing the attack by Amalek. Talmud teaches us that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek. Always, most perplexing in this reading, is that we are commanded to both forget and remember Amalek.

Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt, that he happened upon you, on the way, and he killed among you, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God. (Long, long sentence)

“It shall be that when God your God, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the land that God, your God, gives you as an inheritance to take possession of it, you shall wipe out the remembrance of Amalek from under the heaven – you shall not forget.”

These two lines could be our postcard back to Egypt, detailing our journey, immortalized in our famous, if slightly flippant grace.  “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat.”

These two sentences from Devarim seem almost breathlessly Joyce’ian, written as stream of consciousness, lines punctuated with multiple disjunctives, yet with only one sof pasuk (a period which does not register so much in the English translation).

We are told zachor, “remember,” and lo tishkach, “do not forget.” But we also are commanded to timcheh et zecher, “blot out the memory.” So just how do we both? How do we remember and blot out memory?

Unity is not single-minded. Unity must hold a duality – else what is there to unify? Keeping Shabbat and building a Mishkan are as one: a symbol of unity, and a symbol of one God amongst us. Forgetting and never forgetting Amalek allows us to understand our own complexity of unity. This Purim let us remember we are both hidden and seen. Purim in its most farcical elements demands we remember what we would rather forget – our own duality, our own masks. This Purim, may we learn to be as one, with each other and with God.

Aleichem shalom.