WHAT TORAH PORTION DID JESUS LISTEN TO?
Today, in most synagogues, the weekly Torah readings follow an annual cycle in which the Five Books of Moses are read in one year. However, another reading cycle existed in the Land at the time of Jesus: the so-called “triennial” cycle that lasted approximately three years. Unfortunately, we don’t possess sufficient information regarding the triennial cycle; different sources list different numbers of sedarim, the weekly Torah sections for public reading. We are not even sure whether the reading of the Torah according to a triennial cycle was actually completed in three years. Several sources speak about 167 sedarim, weekly Torah sections, and the cycle of 167 sedarim can only be completed in three and a half years. There are also other numbers as well: 175, 154, 141. Nowadays, when a congregation or synagogue follows the triennial cycle, they usually have 154 weekly sections.
The annual cycle was accepted in Babylonian academies, whilst the triennial cycle was mostly used in the Land. Therefore, there is a possibility that Jesus followed the triennial cycle – unfortunately, as I already mentioned, the information we have is not sufficient to make a definitive conclusion. There were probably some synagogues in the Land which followed the annual cycle, in which case we can imagine Jesus, in these very days of the year, while entering the month of His sacrifice, was entering the Book about sacrifice: the Torah portion for the first week of Nisan is VaYikra, the first Torah Portion of Leviticus.
The book of VaYikra (Leviticus), is placed in the very center of the Torah: two books are before, and two books after. There is so much action before Leviticus; all the wonderful events and stories of Genesis and Exodus, all the great narratives that make such dramatic and colorful pictures in childrens’ Bibles. There is also some action after this book, in Numbers and in Deuteronomy, although the very tone of the stories of the last two books is completely different from the first ones. But here, in VaYikra, there is almost no narrative, almost no action—everything stands still here. Why?
Torah is amazing. It’s incredible how we find, in every reading, something completely new in what seems to be so well known! Only recently I realized how profoundly the spiritual topography of our lives is reflected by the very placement of its books. I can certainly relate—as, I imagine many of us can—to this spiritual topography. We have all had our Genesis and Exodus times, full of events and stories, actions and narratives, and through all these stories, all these turbulent times and battles, God eventually brought each one of us to the pinnacle of our lives, to our own Mount Sinai. There He met us; there He claimed us and called us His own. Then, after this wonderful experience, we got busy with doing things for Him, with being engaged in endless activities, with building Him a sanctuary. Inevitably, however, a moment comes, when, for one reason or another, all these activities stop – all of a sudden, everything becomes still. And then, like Moses, we find ourselves in the next book of our lives — VaYikra.
I imagine, when God first began speaking to Moses in VaYikra, Moses was confused, perplexed, dismayed for a while. It’s not that he had never heard His voice before this book; by the time we enter VaYikra Moses is already a great and accomplished leader who knows well the voice of the Lord and has done amazing things for Him and with Him. He had just led the people out of Egypt, had received the Ten Commandments, had just completed building the Tabernacle, and I suppose, after all these momentous activities, he was ready to just go on. I’m sure he expected the Lord to keep giving him some practical and guiding instructions: “Lord, what do you want me to do next? What do you want me to build for you? Where do you want us to go?” But there is no going or building in VaYikra. Instead, the Lord speaks of sacrifice.
Do you know that in Hebrew, the root karav—from which the words lehakreev, to sacrifice, and korban, sacrifice are formed—is the very same root that also forms the word lehitkarev, to come near, to draw near, to come closer. Yes, it is that simple: if you want lehitkarev leElohim—to come closer to God—you have to lehakreev, to go through korban, sacrifice. It is the same process, the same root. And only when we learn to sacrifice does the real closeness, true intimacy with God come. This new closeness with God is even greater than we previously experienced. God stops us – because He wants us closer to Himself. He wants us lehakreev, and by doing that, lehitkarev—להקריב- ולהתקרב. Was this something that Jesus was thinking of as he was listening to this portion?
A MINIATURE ALEPH
We have already seen that there are three sizes of the letters in Torah— intermediate, oversized and miniature—and every time we see a letter of a different size, we should look for a profound explanation. In the original Hebrew text, the very first word of our portion, “VaYikra” (Leviticus 1:1) has one specific feature: it is written with a small aleph at the end: Vayikra. Why? Why do we have this miniature aleph here?
Our sages offered different explanations, most of which have to do with humility; Moses attained the highest level of humility, they say, and it was expressed by the miniature aleph of Vayikra. There is, however, a deeper explanation, that I would like to share here. The word “VaYikra” without the aleph would read “VaYiker”, which means – “and it happened”. There is a huge and truly ontological difference between the worldview based on Vayikra—”and He called,” and the worldview based on VaYiker—”and it happened“. While we are here on this earth, everything, absolutely everything, can be seen as something that “just happened,” as opposed to something that He has called into being: something that He has created; something that He has caused. But faith knows that there is a little aleph beyond everything that “just happens,” – and it is this aleph that makes all the difference.
I would like to remind you, my dear readers, that we offer a new course, called Weekly Torah Portion, and those interested to study in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, are invited to sign up for this course (or to contact me for more information and for the discount). Also, for those interested in my books, here is the link to my page on this blog: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/.