Vayikra – Shabbat Zachor

By Diane Roosth, March 23, 2024

Shabbat Shalom!

I asked to do this Drash in honor of Bob’s and my wedding anniversary. This month we also celebrate two grandsons’ birthdays, Noam turning 3 and Nadav turning 11.

This Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor, is a time of year when we celebrate with gratitude, strength, humor, movement, music and resilience. We also remember the Story of Purim, a holiday which, like exercise, includes repetition, giving us strength and stability. Dr. Clarence B. Jones, the private lawyer and speech writer for Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr, told Robert Kraft in a recent video, that we have to remember anti-Semitism is racism against Jews. It generally includes prejudice against all who are different. He emphasized that we cannot address discrimination with silence, but need to speak about it and remember.

My goal today is to explore why interpretation matters, what the Mincha, the grain sacrifice, is, as discussed in Leviticus Chapter 2 verse 1, and how we understand the word Nefesh, a single person or soul, described in this verse. Resources used here can be found on the Library Minyan website after this text is posted.

In seeking interpretations, I want to start by looking at Jewish and non-Jewish sources to better understand why interpretation matters.

Torah is one form of communication. We use it as a resource when we speak between ourselves, with our Adonai, and within ourselves. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman in The Talmud of Relationships says that “…for Torah to be new for us is to seek new interpretations.” She refers to Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz, who wrote the Kli Yakar – Precious Vessel, who writes: “The Torah must be new for each person every day as the day it was received from Mount Sinai…”

She also quotes Gerald Bruns, a retired professor and a scholar of English Language and Philosophy; he is less concerned with what truth the bible may be understood to say to us, and more about how every reader brings his or her own self to the text in the process of study and interpretation.

Mood is part of how we communicate. Mood affects how we read the parsha. Richard Carlson talks about the importance of setting a positive emotional climate in his 1998 book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff with your Family and how being calm, patient, and loving, brings out the best in all of us. As we read Torah, living each day impacts our interpretation. Carlson also reminds us to learn from our young children who live in the moment day to day.

The chanting of Torah is musical, with the melody flowing high and low. In Soul, the 2020 Oscar and Grammy Awarded movie, composer Jon Batiste connects the language of faith with gratitude and music and the power of positive thinking. In his 2023 Netflix movie American Symphony, he uses music to offer prayers for healing to his wife who had a reoccurrence of her leukemia.

In addition, to help ourselves and others cope, Jews and Israelis use humor, including music, movement, dance, and costuming. One example is the Haifa University Medical Clowning Program, the Dream Doctors Project. They train Israelis, including Christians, Druze, Arabs, and Jews, many of whom were performers, to be part of multi-disciplinary medical teams. They use humor to connect patients, particularly children, and now injured soldiers, with preparation for medical procedures.

We also use repetition and conditioning our bodies and souls by saying this Mincha service, instead of the grain offering. Praying, like exercise, helps us rewire ourselves and develop new mental pathways to build strength, balance, and stability in challenging times.

You might wonder; What is the Mincha, the afternoon grain offering?

The JPS Commentary, Leviticus talks about how the Mincha is prepared (baking or frying), what ingredients are used (wheat, olive oil, fragrance), and on what types of equipment it can be cooked. The commentators suggest Mincha does not relate to substances used in preparing the sacrifice, but rather that of this tribute, this gift. Biblical evidence indicates that from early times offerings of grain (such as two loaves of bread) and fruit were not burned on the altar, but placed or set before the priests.

In Nehama Leibowitz’s book, Studies in Vayikra Leviticus, she says that Maimonides considers sacrifices as motivated by the desire to combat idolatrous practices and gradually wean the Israelites away from them as a concession to the customs of the times. Midrash suggests to Leibowitz that sacrifice symbolize the worshipper’s dedication of their soul to the Almighty.

Our Shabbat and Holiday table dressed with a challah board becomes a Mikdash Miat, a symbolic small altar. When we bake challah for Shabbat or Chag, and take a piece to burn in the oven, it is as if we symbolically offer a sacrifice to the Holy One.

The Mincha for me is offering time, help, action and tzedakah as obligation to others. Whether it is emotional or physical or spiritual support, it is being there in the moment in the present. Taking someone home who needs a ride, shopping for a food project, observing ritual, Shabbat, Chag, and helping each other is part of staying positive. Seeing my children and grandchildren on WhatsApp, when not in the same place, is relationship, albeit technological. My younger son and his wife volunteer to pick fruits and vegetables when they have time. I am inspired seeing my older grandchildren ages 3-11 help with making food for Shabbat and to give to others. I look at my adult kids and grandkids in Israel as models of resilience, balance and positive thinking, sharing meals with others, sharing time with family and friends.

How can we better understand Nefesh today as providing service or prayer to HaShem? Leviticus Chapter 2 verse 1 begins speaking of when a person, or Nefesh, presents a grain offering of meal to HaMakom, the offering shall be of choice flour, that the offerer shall pour oil and lay frankincense on it.

Why is Nefesh the first word of this line? Rabbi Isaac, quoted in Sefaria by Ein Yaakov, asks: Why has the sacrifice of the Mincha been singled out in this passage with the term Nefesh? I shall … consider his sacrifice as if he (a poor man) sacrificed his own soul before Me.

Rabbi Danny Siegel, poet and educator, wrote, The whole soul should praise G-d. He says the soul alone enjoys… fragrances.

In Leviticus chapter 2: verses 1-16, the Minchah or grain offering serves as a less costly alternative to animal sacrifice. When a person, Nefesh, presents such an offering, sources suggest it is as if the person, regardless of their financial means, offers a piece of their own soul. First fruits, B’kurim, from the same Hebrew root as B’chor, “first born”, were also offered to the priests.

Rabbi Doctor Pinchas Peli, addresses ambivalence in regard to the sacrificial cult in Jewish thought and literature from the time of the ancient prophets and the Psalms to the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash. He says that while dealing with the Priestly Code, the Torah turns to the entire people, and not first to the Levites and the Priests, when saying in Leviticus 1:2, Speak to the children of Israel …”.

Phil Cousineau, who grew up French Catholic in Chicago, identifies numerous writers in his Anthology on Soul. He cites Viktor E Frankl, Holocaust Survivor, German psychiatrist and author, who was able to retreat from life in a concentration camp to a life of inner thoughts and spiritual freedom.

He also mentions musician Ray Charles, who wrote: “When I was writing songs, I concentrated on problems or feelings everyone could understand. …I always tried to stick to common themes: love, heartaches, pleasures of the flesh, and pleasures of the soul.

Natan Shiransky, a 1996 World Chess Champion and Soviet Jewish human rights advocate, speaks of his nine years in the Gulag in the former Soviet Union. According to Wikipedia, while incarcerated in solitary confinement, he claims to have maintained his sanity and his mind active by playing chess against himself internally, staying positive, resilient, knowing others were protesting on his behalf…. On the day of his release, he immigrated to Israel, become a national leader in four Israeli administrations, and Executive Director of the Jewish Agency from 2009-2018.

In summary, making Torah relevant involves finding meaning individually. Specifically, in Vayikra, having conversations and looking at what others understood by offering grains in this season, and understanding how each of us, Nefesh – soul, has something to offer in our own stories and actions as a way to offer gratitude. I wonder how each of us can reinterpret the notion of Mincha, the grain offering, or Avodah, service, in our day and in our time, with gratitude for the grain which comes from the earth and requires a community or village to plant seeds, grow, and harvest.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Purim

  1. Rabbi Amy Scheinerman, in The Talmud of Relationships, Volume 1, G-d, Self and Family
  2. The JPS Commentary, Leviticus, Edited by Nahum M Sarna and Chaim Potok
  3. Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary
  4. Nehama Leibowitz’s book, Studies in Vayikra Leviticus
  5. Rabbi Doctor Pinchas Peli, in Torah Today, A Renewed Encounter with Scripture
  6. From SOUL: An Archaeology: Readings from Socrates to Ray Charles, compiled with commentary by Phil Cousineau: Part 3, pp 75-77, by Viktor E Frankl, Holocaust Survivor, German psychiatrist and author, from Salvation in a Concentration Camp, from Man’s Search for Meaning, Translated by Ilse Lasch, pp 56-61; Part 1, pp 26-29, by Ray Charles and David Ritz, from Brother Ray, Ray Charles’ Own Story, pp. 173-78, 190-191
  7. Rabbi Danny Siegel, poet and educator, wrote in his book, Where Heaven and Earth Touch, Book Three, More Midrash and Halachah
  8. Natan Shiransky, 1988 book Fear No Evil
  10. Times of, “for-Israelis-medical-clowns-getting-a-giggle-has-never-been-a-tougher-sell/
  11. Heartwarming Visit: Superheroes Bring Joy to Children’s Ward at Ichilov Hospital
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