Say Little, Do Much

There are a number of ways we mark time. We can grasp its passage in waves, as brisk and fast as those that travel the known universe, or as granular and ethereal as particle physics. There are historical cataclysms, singular, founding events, and once-in-a-lifetime moments. Also birthdays, anniversaries and yahrzeits, a word that for Jews of European descent, connotes memory—honor and reflection on those who, when in life, were themselves markers of time. There’s the “Common Era” (after Jesus, for Jews) and “Before the Common Era” (now you get it). Just think of how we mark time historically with numbers: 586 BCE; 70 AD; 1492; 1776; 1865; 1914-1918; 1939-1945; 1948; 1967. And on and on. Even numbers, arranged in a certain pattern, connote important time, vital time, event horizons of history as it were. Points of no return, from which our perspective on who we are and what we do and why we do it is forever altered.

If you pause to think about that for a moment, it is rather astounding. Our origin as humans is a collision of two DNA strands meeting in the dark. Vastly complex formulas of addition and multiplication unfold and we become living beings. And then—some say it happens right away but I don’t subscribe to such macabre theories—we eventually begin to decay, things fall apart, and we return to the earth, to our elemental, molecular, subatomic state, the great swim in the regenerative pool of life.

Time. Go figure. It makes Shabbat that much more special if you ask me.

This week’s Torah portion offers us one such inflection point. Va-yikra, the first chapter of Leviticus, the middle of the Five Books of Moses, represents the fulcrum moment of our Torah reading cycle. The scales of our narrative reading ritual balance on the point of this book. Genesis and Exodus before; Numbers and Deuteronomy after. Leviticus is a kind of plateau, a lovely, stable overhang halfway through a mountain hike, a breather between halves of March Madness.

It is also, in most ways, one of the most unpleasant of the Biblical books. It has been likened to a doctor’s manual for the priests, the Cohanim, who were charged by God to offer the necessary sacrifices on the Jewish people’s journey through the desert on the way to the Land of Israel. Our ancestors fervently believed, as God commands them in the Torah, that the shedding of the blood of certain animals and their burnt offering on an altar would ensure them life, health and peace. But a funny thing happened on the way to that image of Redemption. The Babylonian empire destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE; later, having been rebuilt after a brief exile in Babylonia and Persia, the Temple was again destroyed by the Roman empire in 70 CE, never again to be reconstructed. The sacrificial system was dead, only to live in the foundational text of the Torah and in the exegetical minds and spiritual strivings of our rabbinic ancestors. Like the poets and prophets they were, the rabbis allegorized the sacrifices; as befits a generation that came of age in a Greco-Roman context, they wrought from the violent, burning iron of destruction a work of art, a metamorphosis, creating Torah learning, prayerful worship, and deeds of loving-kindness as the new sacrificial system. And thus, for 2,000 years we have thrived, survived and preserved our very existence as a people. We have accomplished this not by killing animals and burning them on an altar, but by teaching our children, gathering as a community in times of joy and sadness, and developing, in every generation, an obligation to repair the world of its brokenness and dislocation.

The scribes who write each Torah scroll have a unique tradition when it comes to the first word in the first line of this middle book of Torah. They write out the א of ויקרא in an unusually small way and no one really knows why. The scribes left it to the rabbis to expound and speculate on why this is so. The א is a silent letter. It stands alone as the first and the quietest of all 22 Hebrew letters in our alphabet. It can only be heard when paired with a vowel. It’s a selfless friend; one might even say it “sacrifices” itself for the sounds others make. This silence has always interested the rabbis, maybe because the House of Study is traditionally such a noisy place. Jews aren’t monks, after all. We talk a lot. Argue. Pick apart words and excavate their meaning. We are meant to ask more questions and not rush to answers. The alef is, therefore, a kind of isle of refuge in the noisy sea of Jewish discourse.

There is a wonderful midrash that says the first sound God made at Mount Sinai was silence. The first commandment (“I am the Eternal your God” אנכי יי אלוהיר) begins in silence. The first sound of the giving of the Law, the Truth, the Way, the commanding voice of God, is silent.

A powerful, potentially transforming notion for an exceptionally noisy and fractionalized world. An early first century sage named Shimon ben Gamliel used to say, “All my days I grew up among the Sages and I did not find anything good for the body except silence. And the main point of Torah is not in explaining it but in doing it. Too much talk leads to sin” (Pirke Avot 1:16).

Writing anything else after a line like that feels risky so I’ll bring this to a quick conclusion. It is best in moments like this to quote the sage Hillel’s study partner Shammai, whose short-tempered wit and concise approach to matters of the heart is particularly helpful right now. He said, “Say little, do much.”

In the school of time of which we are all pupils, silence is a great teacher. In its canopy of peace we learn that inspiration, and a responsibility for one another, can sometimes be found in the quietude of our existence.