The alef is silent and small

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Leviticus was his favorite book. He had several shelves in the category of sifrei drush — books of interpretation — that when we packed up his library he paused to linger among them before assigning them to the inevitable give-away box. A shelf of books were about Leviticus, deriving aggadah from halakhah, story from law. He knew this was his last packing and he was going a long way away; away from here, away from where he had come from, away from his birthplace, his life was a long packing and leaving. 

Sometimes the packing was a fleeing. He was in a Berlin rabbinical seminary just before the War broke out. He shared with me the last Gemorah (page of Talmud) his teacher had learned with them before they all decided that there was no hope where they sat. It was a Gemorah about kashrut, what renders an animal defiled beyond reclamation. His teacher had made the determination at the last moment: there is nothing here for us, it is beyond reclamation. They took the last train out. 

He made it to the United States. Once here, he began his career teaching. When he retired, I asked him to be my teacher. I thought he would be busy, he had an uncommon depth of learning, he could move comfortably through many civilizations but to my surprise no one had asked him. I think I was his only student in his last years here. I always called him Dr. Fish.

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I picked him up and we went to a decent Jewish library so he could grab the texts that he referred to in our study. He ranged widely. Neither his home or the library exists today. 

He always lit up when our studies took us into Leviticus, either through the Gemorah or some other sefer we were studying. He loved the intellectual-spiritual game of deriving lessons for living from the most remote halakhic/legal principles of the world of offerings associated with the Temple in Jerusalem long ago. To make the arcane language of offerings speak to the heart of the learner, this delighted him endlessly. 

In Tzav, we have a listing of the offerings of the Temple, one of which is the thanksgiving offering (Leviticus 7:15). It is a form of what we call in English peace offering, and is given when one has survived a life-threatening crisis. The Talmud (Berachot 54b) gives four examples: surviving the desert, an illness, the ocean and imprisonment. 

This one is easy. We’re living with deserts, the new wilderness of the great lean challenges of existence. Think of our families and friends living with mental illness, living with addiction, sitting in the jailhouse, working the wilderness of the walk through those severe inside and outside environments. When you survive that, you will bring a thanksgiving offering.

An illness. You survive an illness, especially something we don’t talk about easily, you will bring a thanksgiving offering. You get over the ocean, the up and down of the roiling waters of existence, you will bring a thanksgiving offering. You get through the many ways we are imprisoned, some of the ways we imprison ourselves, some of the ways we contribute to the imprisoning of others, you will bring a thanksgiving offering.

The difference in the thanksgiving offering is you bring it for a day. You might bring that offering every day, for every day is a reprieve from these kinds of challenges. Maybe that’s all we ever get, a day. What do you have? Today. Exult in it. 

My teacher spent one year in his new home, Israel. That’s what he wanted, one complete cycle, a year of holidays, one day. When we were packing him up, he gave me a few mementoes: the first radio he acquired in the United States. The radio for him was a symbol of new life with an ear to the world. He also left me a few books of sifrei drush, mostly about Leviticus, and he told me this: when you can work these texts, you can work every text. Everything in your life is a text out of which you derive meaning.

Last thing: said Rav Assi (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah 7:3): with which book does the Jewish child begin learning? Leviticus. Vayikra we call it in Hebrew, “and G-d called” — written in every Torah with a small alef — silent and diminished.