This week, I paid $39.99 to renew my annual subscription to the New York Times crossword puzzles. This is an excellent investment, because I love word games, crosswords in particular, and the Times puzzles best.
Today’s puzzle threw me a curveball. The clue for one across was “sandwich originally named the Aristocrat.” The answer? The Big Mac.
I believe in the importance of names, especially when we’re remembering those who have gone before us. It keeps them anchored to us in a meaningful way.
But it’s not just the names of people that matter. The words we use shape the way we think. That sandwich at McDonalds? The two names bring up very different pictures of the food itself, as well as of the restaurant.
When it comes to translating from one language to another the issue becomes even more complicated, because although a word might literally mean the same thing in the dictionaries, it can have very different connotations in common usage.
One of the most misunderstood words when translating from Hebrew to English is korban. In English, we say sacrifice. Which, by the way, is what nearly the entire book of Leviticus is about. Bloody, messy, probably smelly animal sacrifices. Described in great detail.
It begs the question: Why would the Torah, our sacred text that offers 613 rules on how to be a Jewish mensch in the world, spend nearly a third of those rules on cultic sacrifices?
The answer lies in the real meaning of the word korban. It doesn’t mean sacrifice, especially in the way we use the word today. For us, a sacrifice means giving something up, often something valuable that we’d rather keep.
But in Hebrew, the word means to come close, to draw near. You’re not giving something up – quite the opposite; you’re getting something. And what you’re getting is incredibly valuable, because it is the experience of being in relationship with the Divine.
Now we can understand why a third of the mitzvot of the Torah have to do with the so-called sacrifices. These were opportunities to bring gifts to the priests, who were the mediators between God and the people. They would then burn the gifts on the altar, turning them into openings between God’s world and ours. Giving us opportunities to reach out, to reach towards the Divine, pulling ourselves ever closer.
Judaism no longer has priests who mediate between us and God. We don’t have to travel to the temple in Jerusalem to experience the feeling of coming close to God. Today, we each can reach out to the Divine in our own way; through prayer, meditation, contemplation, gratitude, song, dance.
The more often we do this, the closer we feel to the Divinity that created all things. We can begin to feel the Divinity within ourselves, and those whom we know and love, and eventually within strangers we see on the street.
Like any skill, the ability to draw close becomes deeper and easier with practice. So how do we do that?
There is a clue at the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion. The last letter of the first word is written much smaller than it is anywhere else. It is the aleph at the end of the word vayikra, “and he called.” This is the first word of the book of Leviticus.
Aleph isn’t a flashy letter, even though it’s first. The Bible begins with bet, not aleph. And by itself, aleph is silent; it needs a vowel or another consonant to give it voice.
There are many explanations for its reduced size at the beginning of this book, one of which has to do with Moses’ humility. But there is another message that is meant specifically for us, right here, today.
The virus that has swept across the globe forced us to withdraw, to make ourselves smaller. We had to change, just as Judaism changed when the Temple was destroyed. Having withdrawn into ourselves and our homes, we found new ways to draw near, to each other, to Judaism, and to God.
There is a Hebrew word that is usually applied to God; tzim-tzum. It means to contract, to make oneself smaller to make room for other things. In God’s case, we say that tzim-tzum is what enabled God to create the universe, because God had to withdraw make room for new creations.
Like the tiny aleph at the end of the word vayikra, we have made ourselves smaller. But in so doing we learned new ways to reach out, to draw nearer. And just as aleph needs another letter to make itself heard, we found that in community we could use new tools to reach out from our isolation and draw near.
I have learned that by making myself smaller I am no less than I was. I am not alone in this; every week I am filled with joy and gratitude as I look at the members of my community, whose faces shine in the little boxes of our Zoom Shabbat services.
We have used our enforced isolation to draw near to one another, realizing that we do not have to sacrifice our strong sense of community during the long months of separation. May we and all who have survived this past year be blessed to find ways to draw close, to the Divine and to those whom we love.
This is a slightly revised version of the sermon I gave this Shabbat at Congregation Kol HaNeshama