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Parshat Vayikra -  Hearing a Voice Out Of Silence

03/13/2019 04:01:27 PM


This week I drove up to Los Angeles to attend my Talmud class in person at the Academy for Jewish Religion. Normally I am a long-distance student, and I participate in class through a videochat platform called ZOOM. However, this week was the first week that we would be studying b’chevruta, in pairs or small groups – and I wanted to be there in person. I stayed overnight with a friend in Orange County, but still had to get up and be on the road by 6 a.m. in order to get to a 9:00 class on time. Class was great, and I enjoyed interacting with my fellow students, attending a Shacharit service, having lunch in the Kosher Hillel café. But then it was time to drive home to San Diego from Westwood. I was listening to talk radio quietly in the car at first, but then somewhere around Irvine, I caught myself starting to swerve into the lane to my right as my eyes started to close. I stopped and got some coffee and resumed my journey. However, I spent the entire rest of the drive switching radio stations back and forth and listening to every different kind of music available in whatever language at the loudest volume I could stand, in order to keep myself awake. Noise seemed like the safest thing to do.

Our world is very loud. Most people add their own noise to the noisy background. We are constantly engaged with our devices as well as interacting with the world around us. Our brains are constantly bombarded by input and stimulation. Noise is normal. Studies show that people are more uncomfortable with silence than with noise. I was definitely afraid of silence on Monday, when I needed to stay awake and alert on the drive home.

Parshat Vayikra, called Leviticus in the Greek, begins with an anomaly. All through the Torah from the Book of Exodus on, God speaks to Moses. We always hear the word Vayomer or Vay’daber, meaning speak or say. At the beginning of this book, God CALLS to Moses – Vayikra – and only after calling, does God speak to Moses.

The word Vayikra is written in the Torah in an unusual way. The scribe makes the final letter several points smaller than the rest of the word. Imagine the difference on your computer between 14-point type and 8-point type. The last letter is an aleph. The primary silent letter. The scribes are following a mystical tradition that calls attention to the silent letter. God is understood to call Moses out of silence.

At the end of Shemot/Exodus last week, we were left with the image of God’s Presence in the form of a cloud, filling the Sanctuary and the Tent of Meeting. Moses could not go in when God’s Presence filled the Tabernacle. Then, God calls to Moses and invites him into the Presence. The calling and the speaking happen in two different sentences. This suggests that there was a pause while God waited for Moses to respond.

God is oddly hesitant here. What could that mean? The whole Book of Vayikra can be understood as an instruction manual for the priests. It gives a great deal of detail about sacrifices. The sacrifices are what God needs from us. They are the tangible expression of our part of the Covenant – our love and commitment to God. Asking someone for what we need from them is an experience of vulnerability. All of ’God's vulnerability and hope is concentrated in that small aleph, that tiny silent letter. The silence comes before the ask – it is that moment when we gather our courage to ask for what we really need.

Silence is essential to authentic relationship. It is absolutely essential to our own mental health and well-being. How many times might we have missed God calling us, or our children, or spouse or friend? Yet, noise is familiar. Sometimes noise is the safest thing, as it was for me in the car a few days ago.

It takes focused effort to detach from all the noise. One famous sage of our people, the Vilna Gaon, used to do a word-fast. He periodically set aside time to stop speaking. To stop using so many words, and just listen. This is just one more way that the weekly gift of Shabbat can help us to renew ourselves. I invite us all to try a word or noise fast this week. Set aside some time to unplug from your devices, but do more than that. Set aside some time for silence. Watch a bird, or look at some of the spring plants and trees that are budding. Practice silence, and listen for an important call.

Sun, July 5 2020 13 Tammuz 5780