Drash on Shabbat Vayikra/ Hachodesh/ Rosh Chodesh Nisan
Rabbi Fred Morgan
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Israel
This week we begin a new book of Torah – Vayikra, the book of Priestly Instruction (Torat kohanim). The portion begins a long description of the sacrifices which the priests offered on behalf of the Jewish people in the mishkan or dwelling place of God, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, in order to maintain their connection with God.
This Shabbat is also the last of the four special Sabbaths which every year anticipate Pesach by the addition of a second Torah reading to our services. It is called Shabbat Hachodesh, after the reading from the second scroll that describes the setting of the “spring month” – Aviv (now called Nisan) - as the start of the Jewish year, when the festival of Pesach is celebrated.
Finally, this Shabbat is also Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first day of the month of Nisan, which tells us that Pesach is only two weeks away. In some synagogues a section will be read from a third scroll (a third scroll doesn’t appear very often!) that describes the sacrificial offerings that in ancient days were to be made on rosh chodesh.
Our rabbinic sages delighted in finding meanings behind what appear as coincidences. They sought to come up with interpretations that would discover an orderly pattern behind apparently chance happenings. In this spirit we may ask, Is there anything that ties together these different segments of Torah, these three distinct moments in the life of the Jewish community – Shabbat Vayikra, Shabbat Hachodesh and Rosh Chodesh Nisan? What does their chance combination on this Shabbat teach us?
Torah encourages each of us to come up with our own answer. The one I share with you now relies on the Hebrew letter aleph – and not even a full-sized aleph, but an aleph written smaller than all the other letters of Torah.
This is the aleph at the end of the word vayikra that opens this book of Torah. In every scroll of Torah you will find that this aleph is witten ze’ira, that is, smaller than the other letters. It is a rule for scribes that the aleph here must be written in this way. Generations of Torah scholars have offered explanations as to why this is so. One of those explanations suggests that the aleph is written small because it is dispensable; the word that opens Vayikra can be read with or without it.
The portion Vayikra opens: “[The Eternal] called (vayikra) Moses and the Eternal spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” Vayikra, ending in that small aleph, means “He called/ summoned”. But without the aleph at the end of vayikra, the word becomes vayikar, which means “He happened upon”. The difference is one of intention – of meaningful action. In the one reading, with the aleph, God summoned Moses – their meeting was purposeful; in the other reading, without the aleph, God and Moses happened upon each other – it was simply a chance encounter, and only later did God address Moses from the Tent of Meeting. Whether we see their encounter as purposeful or accidental, as carrying real meaning or simply being one of life’s forgettable coincidences, depends on the most silent of letters in the Hebrew alphabet – not only silent, but written ze’ira, smaller than all the others; just a wisp of a letter. It is like a slight gesture that is ignored by some and taken as being deeply symbolic and meaningful by others. Whether these passages of Torah – the sacrificial descriptions of Vayikra, the extra reading of Hachodesh that anticipates Pesach, and the reading that marks the month of Nisan – have meaning for us or not, may depend on the slightest murmur in our soul, a spiritual aleph within us that is so diminutive we might easily overlook it altogether.
What ties these three passages of Torah together, then, is our response to them as Jews. When we hear them, do they resonate within us, awakening us to this season of Pesach? Or are they coincidental to us, on the periphery of our lives? Is it an accident that we hear them, or do they form an intrinsic part of the pattern of our lives as Jews? In short, do they, however mysteriously, summon us to God?