These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

על ויקרא, on vayikra

Posted on May 25, 2011 by Avi Strausberg

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i was scared to begin the book of vayikra.  for that matter, others were scared for me.  sefer vayikra, which primarily deals with laws surrounding ritual purity, sacrificial offerings, as well as other priestly business, is often written-off as that dry middle section of the Torah necessary to skim through in order to get back on track in bamidbar.  and while it’s true that much of vayikra includes the repetitive protocol for how to offer such and such a sacrifice in such and such a circumstance in order to gain favor, regain purity, or just give thanks, there’s something in all of this sacrificial offering we can apply back to our mundane, post-temple lives.

the theme of this book is if you get yourself dirty, then get yourself clean.  if you touch something impure, make yourself pure.  better yet, stay away from all of that impurity in the first place (scaly lepers, creepy crawlers, lifeless bodies).  if you’re making an offering, offer one free of blemish.  if you yourself find yourself blemished, hide out and get un-blemished.  and with each of these warnings, God gives us detailed instructions for how to distinguish between the clean and the unclean, the holy and the unholy.  if we are to be like God, then we must find ways to make ourselves clean.

we all know that staying clean is impossible.   physically, emotionally, ritually, you name it, we muck it up.  this is just the nature of the world.  putting aside the fact that we live in a post-temple world riddled with ritual impurity, i am continuously setting positive intentions for myself which moments later i find myself walking all over.  and even though God forbids us from making ourselves unclean, the very existence of this purity-impurity system acknowledges the inevitability of getting dirty.  and thank God, when we do get dirty, when we stumble, when we fail, when we roll around in the dirt, for each and every occasion, there is something you can offer, there is a rulebook to which you can turn, and there is way to get back to clean.

for just a moment,
it delights in its fresh white,
before the world hits.

then God comes along,
with a stainstick in His hand,
to wipe the shirt clean.

it’s okay, we all get dirty.  and then we all get clean.

may we be there to pick each other up, wipe ourselves off, and start again,


ps.  all of this talk of the inevitability of getting dirty reminds me of one of my favorite books: einstein’s dreams by alan lightman.  if only the world were so…


“11 May 1905” (p. 66)

Walking on the Martgasse, one sees a wondrous sight. The cherries in the fruit stalls sit aligned in rows, the hats in the millinery shop are neatly stacked, the flowers in the balconies are arranged in perfect symmetries, no crumbs lie on the bakery floor, no milk is spilled on the cobblestones of the buttery. No thing is out of place.

When a gay party leaves a restaurant, the tables are more tidy than before. When a wind blows gently through the street, the street is swept clean, the dirt and dust transported to the edge of town. When waves of water splash against the shore, the shore rebuilds itself. When leaves fall from the trees, the leaves line up like birds in V-formation. When clouds form faces, the faces stay. When a pipe lets smoke into a room, the soot drifts towards a corner of the room, leaving clear air. Painted balconies exposed to wind and rain become brighter over time. The sound of thunder makes a broken vase reform itself, makes the fractured shards leap up into the precise positions where they fit and bind. The fragrant odor of a passing cinnamon cart intensifies, not dissipates, with time.

Do these happenings seem strange?

In this world, the passage of time brings increasing order. Order is the law of nature, the universal trend, the cosmic direction. If time is an arrow, that arrow points towards order. The future is pattern, organization, union, intensification; the past, randomness, confusion, disintegration, dissipation.

Philosophers have argued that without a trend toward order, time would lack meaning. The future would be indistinguishable from the past. Sequences of events would be just so many random scenes from a thousand novels. History would be indistinct like the mist slowly gathered by treetops in evening.

In such a world, people with untidy houses lie in their beds and wait for the forces of nature to jostle the dust from their windowsills and straighten the shoes in their closets. People with untidy affairs may picnic while their calendars become organized, their appointments arranged, their accounts balanced. Lipsticks and brushes and letters may be tossed into purses with the satisfaction that they will sort themselves out automatically. Gardens need never be pruned, weeds never uprooted. Desks become neat by the end of the day. Clothes on the floor in the evening lie on chairs in the morning. Missing socks reappear.

If one visits a city in spring, one sees another wondrous sight. For in springtime the populace become sick of the order in their lives. In spring, people furiously lay waste to their houses. They sweep in dirt, smash chairs, break windows. On Aabergergasse, or any residential avenue in spring, one hears the sounds of broken glass, shouting, howling, laughter. In spring, people meet at unarranged times, burn their appointment books, throw away their watches, drink through the night. This hysterical abandonment continues until summer, when people regain their senses and return to order.