Parashat Vayikra: Taking time

The Torah enables us to learn from the simple layout of the paragraph.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

There is a mystical tradition that not only each letter of the Torah, but also the spaces between the letters, communicates something. This is not just a mystical tradition, however, it is also a reality experienced by every reader. 

Typographical layouts are significant; spaces speak and silences help us understand just as words do. The Torah enables us to learn from the simple layout of the paragraph.

In the Torah there are two kinds of separations between topics, closed (setumah) and open (petuchah). The closed is one where there is space in the line, yet the text continues in the same paragraph. Open is when there is a new paragraph and obviously demonstrates a more significant break.

In our parasha there is such a break, one that causes Rashi to wonder why it is there. Leviticus 1:10 follows on from the previous verse, the end of 1:9. Verse 9 concludes: “an offering by fire of a pleasing odor to the Lord” and 10 continues “and if his offering is from the flock...” Even the “and” – the vav – demonstrates that it is part of the same instruction.

Yet the 10th verse is placed on an entirely new paragraph. Rashi, noticing that it is a continuous thought yet is separated, wonders why. He offers a tremendously important conclusion. Rashi explains that the break is there to teach us that Moses took time to reflect on what he had been told in the previous section before directing his attention to the next section.

 Moses was a leader with humility, which is what we should be looking for today.  (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Moses was a leader with humility, which is what we should be looking for today. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

One of the catchphrases of our time is “multitasking.” We look at our phones as we participate in a Zoom meeting and think about what we should have for lunch. Yet studies have demonstrated that multitasking is an illusion. 

We are not multitaskers but serial taskers, sometimes very rapid serial taskers. We cannot actually pay attention to two things simultaneously, but we can shift our attention quickly from one to the other and back again.

Speed is the natural antagonist of depth. My father once took a seminar with the renowned scholar of Sigmund Freud, Philip Rieff. For the entire semester they studied a single essay by Freud, reviewing the text over and over, asking why he chose this word and not that one, and what implications unfolded upon repeated readings. At the end of the seminar, Rieff said, “The way we have now read Freud is the way Jewish scholars read Talmud.”

In a world that values productivity and range, Judaism teaches us to value profundity and focus. Rashi’s interpretation was doubtless born of his own experience. As the premier commentator in our history on not only the Torah but the Talmud, Rashi understood how much time is required to truly study and understand the Torah – even Moses needed time to understand and absorb what God had communicated. 

One of the consistent developments of the modern age is the avalanche of information. We wake to emails, texts, tweets, posts and updates. During the day there is no cessation in the constant flow. Most of it is forgettable; in any case, most of it is forgotten.

Yet the ability to pause and meditate and think about what is significant is essential to living a meaningful life. As the old story has it, a man once boasted to the rabbi that he had gone through the Talmud three times. What I wish to know, said the rabbi, is how much the Talmud has gone through you. 

The example of Moses demonstrates that all of us need to take time to pause, reflect and understand the lessons of our tradition. 

We may miss the latest, but we will achieve the lasting. ■

The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author of David the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.