This is the D'var Torah I gave a year ago in our Torah reading cycle, March 20, 2021. It was by the Torah reading calendar the first reading of the second year of pandemic restrictions. I read it now and so much of how I'm reflecting is the same.
When we last checked in at the mishkan (the portable desert sanctuary), it was one year to the day after the first instructions had been given, way back in Egypt, for the meal of the night before the day of leaving. The last night of slavery, the night of the last and deadliest plague. Now one year later, next to Mt. Sinai, the people saw all these things they had brought in, repurposed and shown off in a new light. Colors and textures, gold and silver and wood, fabrics and skins – all this raw material, they saw what all of it had been fashioned into, and they watched as Moshe brought every piece into the center of the camp and assembled them into a whole. Something from all of them, their unity and their individualities represented by their gifts, in one place in one structure.
And then, on that one year anniversary, there was a moment. It was more than an instant – look in the Torah scroll, there is a wide white space to the end of the line, right after the Torah says Moshe finished the work. Just like the words from God’s first finishing, the pause between the end of Creation and the start of Shabbat, looking at the whole thing and saying tov m’od, very good.
And after that pause, who knows how long, a cloud suddenly engulfed the mishkan. It was a cloud of Shechinah, of God’s intense presence, the most-present, right-there presence of the Divine. And it was a cloud. And no one could see into the cloud. Not even Moshe. Not even when the Torah says the cloud encompassed the mishkan every day and a pillar of fire by night to lead the people ahead in their travels. Cloudy, with a chance of Torah. That was the first anniversary.
And again the Torah leaves a space. This time it’s a white space a few lines wide, between the end of Exodus and the start of Leviticus. Time to take a breath, maybe, after months of shlepping? A restful Shabbat? Who after all could wrap their head around such a year as they had had?
Now this week. There’s the mishkan, still there, brand new, and the cloud of guiding is still wrapped around this thing made up of the contributions of all of us, in the center drawing everyone’s attention, and it’s still obscure through a cloud – but now there’s a voice calling out, trying to be heard. What is it saying?
What do you think it would be saying, at the start of the thirteenth month in the midbar (wildnerness)? I have to tell you that the Torah this week has been pushing me around, pushing back on me, because a week ago I had an idea about what I wanted to say today. I told you I’d be talking about some of what I see ahead of us, in the time after the first year of the pandemic. But the Torah has been saying to me: You realize it’s still cloudy, even around this mishkan that is supposed to be guiding us ahead.
The Torah has been pinning me to the first word of the parasha, specifically the letter at the end of the first word. Vayikra means “God called”, but the last letter, the alef, is written small, like a superscript. It’s both higher than the other letters, calling attention to itself, and also smaller, like -- is it really there? Alef is the first letter of the alphabet, of course, and it’s the first letter and the first sound of the Ten Commandments, it’s the alef of Anochi – I am.
One year later, in the desert, the Anochi, the I am, is not completely there, and it wants to be there, and also it’s all that is there. “I am not completely there, I’m not myself” – that’s something we could all be saying today. “I am all that’s here, I’ve been here for a year with no one but myself” – that’s also something we could all be saying. The capital-Alef Anochi, the Divine – also not always seeming like it’s here, and also realizing that we might not believe it’s been here the whole time. That is why the letter is small but also hanging down from the direction of heaven.
The commentaries say that even Moshe wasn’t sure what was calling out of the cloud that he knew from experience was the place where Divine instructions come from. Even Moshe wasn’t fully ready to be an Alef, an Anochi – to be an I, an agent, a divine emissary. Even Moshe didn’t believe that the midbar, the desert, could be a place of calling and guidance. Eventually he did – the midrashim notice that the same Hebrew letters spell midbar and m’dabber, desert and speaking – only when someone realizes they are as exposed as the desert can they hear the Torah, the guiding they need.
What I wanted the Torah to do in this parasha is to tell me that God gave Moshe one Shabbat off, and then helped him to see through the cloud into the mishkan, so God and Moshe could pick up where they had left off, which was God teaching Moshe the ins and outs of the Ten Commandments in more detail. That’s what I think I want to be talking about nowadays: what are the ethical challenges ahead of us in the coming months, while we are in this midbar that is definitely not the promised land, but is on the way there, and is an interesting and revealing place for us to live for a while.
But no, strangely there are no ethics for chapters and chapters in the Torah, and no travel either. It’s 18 chapters and six more weekly parashiyot until we get to ethics. There’s no travel, but there is movement. It’s the motion of korban – of people coming in closer, walking into the center, toward the cloud, with their offerings. Toward the cloudy place, with offerings occasioned by basic emotions – wellbeing, gratitude, guilt. Getting out and coming toward, to eat a sacred meal with a Kohen, to cleanse themselves of something, to burn up something completely and leave it behind.
Why is that how the Torah starts year two after Egypt? And I, the rabbi and teacher, push back and says maybe they could learn the ethics first, so they’ll know what it means to be whole and to be wrong or right. Let God talk about the offerings to bring in response to that.
And the Torah says back: Maybe no Jon? How about first we work on enlarging the alef – on helping people come back into themselves, to becoming an I, an agent, who understand ourselves acting and not just buffeted by the forces beyond them. The midrash says this about the alef in the word Vayikra: if it gets so small that it disappears, you’re left with the word vayikker, which means not “God called” but “it just happened”. The only reality is being blown around by the desert winds. I get that. In some sense we’re just starting to feel like we’re wrestling back some control of our lives, and we’re looking toward a time when not everything will be defined by the pandemic or in terms of it. A time still in the midbar, but on the move.
We’ll get to know ourselves again, the Torah says to me, by experiencing fire and gratitude, and guilt and wellbeing, experience them as our own, as mine, as Anochi. And when you have one of those primary emotions, come closer to someone or to some thing. Wonder if that can lead you toward something or someone, even if it’s just out for a walk toward whatever seems sacred or special, whatever makes you feel like a mensch again, and walk back to your personal place. And do that again for a while. We’re not going to be moving forward in the same direction all together just yet.
In year one, the Torah says we built the mishkan out of inanimate objects, representing ourselves through static things, frozen things. In year two, what we see in the middle of the camp is different. We bring on our own schedules, and we bring what’s alive – the offerings were meat and flour, animals and growing grain – representing ourselves through living things, things that move, as we are beginning to move.
For a while, the Torah says here in Leviticus, moving is just getting used to back and forth. It’s not one direction, from alone to together, from isolated to the Divine. It’s back and forth. Vayikra doesn’t command offerings from everyone on the same schedule. Yes, there’s some paying attention to right and wrong; sometimes you have to bring something in because of that. But mostly, we’re guided by ourselves, we know when to try moving. Closer and back out. The cloud and the fire are in the center and draw our eyes even when we’re still alone, to help us remember that there is something common even on the days we don’t bring anything. Do it like this for a while, move in your own directions, says the Torah for eighteen chapters, and then we’ll get back to ethics, and then we’ll try moving on together.
I accept this as half the truth. I’m impatient for us to become Anochi again – to feel like people, to feel like the ones who hear divine teachings and respond and act them out.
This wasn’t the D’var Torah I was expecting to give today. Torah’s like that; it’s learning to be not just Anochi=who I think I am, but what I think the Divine might be telling me to say when that’s different from where I started.
There is a mishkan, calling out teachings as the second year starts. It knows that it’s in a cloud but it knows we will eventually make out its sounds. And we are here, alefs -- feeling some days small and silent, some days larger and more divine. We are here, moving not forward together just yet, but every day each of us back and forth with korbanot (closeness-offerings), experimenting in our own ways with closeness, to one thing at a time, to one another -- and eventually closer to the Torah of this new year in the desert.