Start Learning Here?

Imagine: you are about the start teaching Torah in kindergarten, and you have to pick where to start them. Which story would it be? Abraham’s journey, Rachel at the well, Joseph’s coat, Miriam watching Moses gloating in the basket, perhaps the sea splitting or the amazing experience at Mount Sinai?
You would look through the whole text, cover to cover, and then, excitedly, point to the Book of Leviticus: Here! Confused parents demand to know, why and you say, “The sacrifices are pure, and the little ones are pure. Let the pure one deal with the pure things”, at least this is what the midrash said (Psikta D’rav Kahana, 6).
It’s not clear what is meant by this statement, so I allowed myself my own musings.
The Book of Leviticus begins with sacrifices: what to bring when, how and mostly why. The Hebrew word for sacrifices, korbanot, comes from the root k.r.v. which also makes the word karov, to be close, also a relative, and kravayim, internal organs. I’m reminded of another midrash that before the world was created, tshuva was created, that is a way “to come back”, “repent”. This has to be one of our best contributions to humanity’s mental health, the idea that one is not doomed, that there is a way to go back and fix things, that there is a way to get closer, especially when we move away; what a liberating idea.
Let’s be clear: The sacrifices were not a quick fix. Watching one’s animal slaughtered on the altar had to be very (very) hard. I think that for variety of reasons, people must have tried to avoid it. But that did not matter. It matters that it was there, and that this is something we learn early on: having tools to come nearer to G-d; having good and bad, both, within us; having a way to make up, all that is critical.
There is another beautiful and critical lesson right in the first word of this reading, Vayikra, and He called – G-d called Moses, and then spoke. Last week’s parasha ended with the completion of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, covered by the cloud. How would Moshe know what to do? G-d calls him, then speaks to him! Rashi says that G-d calling Moshe first, as if getting his attention, or inviting him into His house, is leshon chiba, a loving way of speaking. Indeed, G-d and Moses model a relationship: G-d Himself doesn’t assume Moses is always available. He calls first. Moses waits, ready to hear. And we teach this two-way communication to our children: We call G-d and He calls us.
But then, if you look at that first word in Hebrew., you might notice the last letter, the alef, is small. Why? What if the alef was not there? The word would be vayikar – “and He chanced”. Commentaries say that Moshe was so humble, he didn’t want to show off that G-d is calling him. Further, this is the book of Torat Hakohanim, the Priestly Law (hence “Leviticus”) but Aaron is barely mentioned. Moshe was thinking about his brother, being considerate of his feelings too. Yes, it is a midrash, but this too we teach our kids early on, as if we say something like: ‘the stories are great: how the world was created, where we’ve come from, who were our forefathers, but if we have to choose between that and how you will behave I your life, in your future, well guess what’…
So maybe this is why children started their Torah learning with because Leviticus includes more than a third of all mitzvoth, and we believe that what we do is what matters; that if we err, we can correct; that we have to be busy building our relationships horizontally and vertically, with patience and respect and love.
Shabbat Shalom.

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