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3 Nisan 5762
As I was looking through this week’s parasha, VaYiqra [Leviticus], I realized that if I were to talk strictly about what was in the parasha you would all be asleep.
About the only things the parasha talks about are sacrifices. I wouldn’t want to listen to a devar Torah about a bunch of animal heads falling off, so I don’t expect you to. I decided to talk about what this parasha means to me instead.
This parasha, as is traditional in many Orthodox schools, is the first parasha I learned. Through ten years of Judaic education I have learned VaYiqra three times so far and every time I learned something new.
The first time I was four years old and in studying VaYiqra I learned how to read Hebrew, Rashi script, and I learned what the sacrifices were. The second time I was eight years old and I learned more about why there are sacrifices. Most recently, I learned VaYiqra again over the past year and studied the te`amim – the symbols for the tune used when reading Torah.
I think that VaYiqra represents the continuity of the Jewish religion. There are no sacrifices today so this parasha is seemingly meaningless. When VaYiqra is studied in depth, one can then understand the purposes of sacrifices.
If you committed a specific sin you brought a specific sacrifice to atone for that sin. For example, if you committed a sin by mistake you would bring a qorban hatat which was a female cow. We substitute a cow for ourselves because we know God could justifiably destroy us because of all our sins. A cow represented a fair amount of wealth. You would sacrifice this cow, which was like being fined a good percentage of your savings account, and you’d learn not to make that mistake again. There were less costly sacrifices for those who couldn’t afford such an expensive animal.
Of course everyone still, unfortunately, commits sins. Today, we use prayer as a substitute for the sacrifices that were done in Temple times. Specific prayers have been written over the centuries to atone for specific sins.
I think that VaYiqra also represents the dedication that Jewish people have to the Jewish religion.
I’ll tell you a short story. You know that we spent a year in Jerusalem. One day, Ima, Tali, and I were visiting Yad Vashem, which is the national Holocaust museum in Israel. We were taking a tour and I noticed a display of Torah scrolls that were damaged in World War Two. I was studying one of the scrolls that had a bullet hole and seemed to be encrusted with blood. The Germans had raided a synagogue during a Saturday morning prayer service just like this one and shot the man who had been reading from that very Torah. The bullet must have gone right through him and the Torah scroll. His blood stained the scroll.
I found myself singing the part of the Torah with the bullet hole. As it turns out the person had been reading the same part of VaYiqra I had learned a few weeks before.
And after thousands of years of difficult history, you are here today celebrating with me as I read the very same part of the torah that this man died for.
There is one more thing I would like to talk about. It may not seem related, but bear with me!
I am wearing a tallit with petil tekhelet, i.e., the blue thread on the fringes. Some people have this blue thread and some have all white threads for fringes. During the time of the Temple most men wore tzitzit with a blue thread. When the Temple was destroyed two thousand years ago and the Jews were scattered, people forgot which animal was supposed to be used to make the blue dye. Men stopped wearing the blue thread as the dye became unavailable.
In 1858, a French zoologist found that there were three Mediterranean mollusks that produced purple-blue dyes. One, called Murex Trunculus, a kind of snail, was the one many people thought was the source of the blue used for the tekhelet.
Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, who also lived in the 1800s, independently started an expedition to find the Hilazon. Hilazon is the word the Mishna uses to describe the animal that produces the blue dye. Rabbi Leiner found a certain squid he thought was the Hilazon. He brought the squid to an Italian chemist for help in making the dye. They were successful and Rabbi Leiner and his followers started wearing the squid tekhelet.
In 1913, the Chief Rabbi of Ireland wrote a paper on porphyrology – the study of purple. When he sent samples of Rabbi Leiner’s squid tekhelet to chemists for testing, the chemists found that the dye was inorganic, so it was not purely a squid product.
It turns out the color was a synthetically manufactured color called Prussian blue. The Chief Rabbi refused to believe that Rabbi Leiner would purposely mislead his students, so he decided to study the process used to create the dye. He discovered why the dye was inorganic. The process of creating the dye involved heating the squid ink to a very high temperature and then adding colorless iron filings. This produced the blue color. We now know that almost any organic substance put through this process would produce blue dye! Unfortunately, it seems that the Italian chemist had misled Rabbi Liener and the dye was colored by the chemical reaction with the iron filings, it was not entirely natural.
Now, back to the French zoologist’s Murex Trunculus, the snail. There were two problems with this creature that seemed to disqualify it from being the Hilazon described in the Mishna. First, it did not look like the ocean, which is what the Mishna specifies. Instead, its shell was white with brown stripes. This problem was solved when people found that when this snail was in the water it covered itself with a slime that made it look the color of the sea so that requirement was fulfilled.
Second, its dye was more purple than blue. This problem was recently solved when someone noticed that the snail’s dye turned more bluish in sunlight. If the dye is exposed to sunlight at a certain point in the manufacturing process, the dye will turn out a brilliant blue.
A few years ago there was another expedition to find more of the Murex Trunculus snails for more research. It just so happens that my dentist in Israel was one of the people on that expedition!
So what do the sacrifices described in VaYiqra have to do with snails, squid, blue dye, Italian chemists, French zoologists, and prayer shawls? Simple!
I just read the same words that were read by Jews in the holy city of Jerusalem in ancient times and I’m wearing a tallit with blue-dyed threads just like my ancestors wore. Even more amazing is the fact that the method for making the blue dye was lost for thousands of years and my dentist on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem is one of the people doing research and leading the resurgence of the mitzva of petil tekhelet!
In many schools, Jewish children learn VaYiqra as their first formal introduction to Torah study, just as they have done for generations. Jews have shown incredible dedication to learning Torah and studying the mitzvot, even those mitzvot like Temple sacrifices and wearing petil tekhelet and that we have been unable to do for thousands of years.
I hope this has been a little more interesting than talking about how to chop off animal heads. And I hope there are one or two less people napping than there otherwise would have been.
Now, the inevitable has come: the small print. However, this time the small print is not the annoying drone of a man on a television commercial talking so fast that nobody can understand him; or the paragraph in size two font on the bottom of any text that contains the word “free.”
Rather, this time the small print is the thank you’s to some very special people who helped me a lot during the course of this past year. I would like to thank Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen for always being nurturing and encouraging. Thank you to Jeffrey Kern who helped me learn how to read my parasha and to Marsha and Sarah Beller who helped me learn how to lead the services. Thank you to two of my favorite teachers, Rabbi Daniel Greer from the Gan School and Rabbi Yehuda Brecher from Hebrew Academy. Thank you to all my friends who are the greatest friends a person could imagine. I would also like to thank everyone who made the trip to New Haven from far and wide to be here today. Thank you Tali for being a great sister and a best friend. And finally, thanks Ima and Abba for being parents who get on my back when I need it, for being role models I hope to emulate, and for being so much fun!
Thank you and good shabbos!
Shai M. Sokolow Silverman