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04/06/2015 07:12:00 AM


Leviticus 1 - 5
Rabbi Edward Feinstein

How do the books of the Torah get their names? It's really rather arbitrary: Each name is simply the first significant word found in the first lines of the book. But by some powerful coincidence, these randomly chosen names capture and express the character and content of each book:

B'reshit, (Genesis) is a book of beginnings -- recounting the origins of the world, of humanity, and of Israel. More, B'reshit sets the foundation of Jewish faith -- our fundamental attitudes about God, the world, the human being, nature, gender, family, and evil.

Sh'mot, (Exodus) means "names", because the book opens with names of Jacob's clan who went down into Egypt. But at the center of Sh'mot are those events that give us our identity as a people: the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving (and Receiving) of Torah on Mt. Sinai. Sh'mot is, indeed, the book of our name.

Va'yikra, (Leviticus) the book we begin this week, translates "and He [God] called..." which is precisely the book's content: God's call to the people Israel to attain holiness -- to live up to God's dream to become a "nation of priest and a holy people", and Israel's response through mitzvot and worship.

Bamidbar, (Numbers) means "in the wilderness." The book's story takes us from Mt. Sinai, through the wilderness wanderings of the Israelites to the boundaries of the Promised Land. But more than the geographic wilderness, this book describes a social wasteland. Every tie that binds the People Israel falls apart: The driving dream of the Promised Land is violated by the people's fear and doubt. The base physical desires of hunger, thirst, and sexual lust overcome the Vayikra vision of the people's holiness and duty. The tragedy of Bamidbar falls heaviest on Moshe. Everyone in his life betrays him: his people, his tribe, even his own family. And finally, ironically, he is betrayed by God...and for what?...for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it! But what else could be expected? Nowhere in Bamidbar do words function properly! In Bamidbar, there are no shared words. Leaders speak, but on one listens. Leaders lead, but no one follows. Filled with screaming and shouting and whining, it is the noisiest, most disturbing book in the Bible.

Had the Torah ended here, as some scholars suggest it once did, it would have been a very different book...and we would be a very different people. But it doesn't end here.

The Torah's final book is D'varim (Deuteronomy). D'varim means "words", and the book relates all the words shared by the once wordless Moshe with the children of the Bamidbar generation. It's a remarkable revolution: he talks, they listen. He teaches, they learn. Here is dialogue, shared vision, shared values, shared direction. The most important word in D'varim is Sh'ma -- "Listen!" ... It is a book of listening. It is a book filled with the calm of consensus and confidence. At the end, as at the beginning, creation overcomes chaos...and it is good.

Why does the Torah juxtapose such antithetical books -- the holy vision of Vayikra, the discordant bedlam of Bamidbar, the calm of Dvarim? Why such contradictory visions of human life and human community? Because all life is an oscillation among them -- vision and division, chaos and consensus. This is the inner life, as we alternatively grasp and then grow out of our conceptions of life's purpose and mission. This is family life -- as we learn to hold onto one another, and at the same time, learn to let go. And this is the life of human communities. No community's consensus lasts forever. Nor should it. We must, periodically, re-enter Bamidbar to find a new course, a new vision, a new language. But the Torah offers this wisdom: Out of Bamidbar comes Dvarim -- out of rebellion and wandering will come consensus and direction, just as out of chaos comes Creation. That's the Torah's faith.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780