Monday, March 19, 2012

Counting Sheep

Parshat Vayikra
Vayikra 1:1 – 5:26
1 Nissan 5772 / March 23 –24, 2012

Counting Sheep
by Jordy Snyder, MH Montgomery County, MD

One sheep, two sheep, three sheep…… seventy four sheep, or something like that.

In the past few months of dry winter air, I have had some difficulty falling asleep- and have often wondered if counting sheep would be an effective, and not to mention adorable and fuzzy, way to pass the time to eventually lull me into a well-deserved slumber.

By the third book of the Torah, we have heard all the stories, been drawn in and now is the time for

some serious text study, some real and deep thought about how these laws can relate to us now in

2012, whether our Moishe House is in Chicago, Kiev or Johannesburg. In this week’s parsha, Vayikra, the

first section of the third book of the Torah, we also count sheep, but the counting of these sheep, while

also spiritually calming, are really about repentance and cleansing.

Until reading and reflecting on this week’s parsha, when I heard the word “Vayikra”, what came to mind

is a whole book of laws full of detailed minutia, many of which seem no longer directly applicable with

the absence of the temple. As I began to read Vayikra, my speculation increased. The parsha specifies

which type of animals were to be used in sacrifices and how they should be prepared. I felt like I was

reading my roommate’s LSAT study guide:

If individual A did act X on B date and H (in this case Hashem) was the only witness, is individual A

required to pay:

a. 7 sheep, 3 she goats, and some oil

b. 2 turtledoves (apparently these animals really exist outside of the Christmas song), goat horns and

sheep blood

c. None, as there was no human witness and the exact location of the required sacrifice can only be

arrived at by some folding of the space time continuum

I don’t have any goats, sheep or cattle to give, and although we do have a bonfire pit at Moishe House

Montgomery County, I think the neighbors may not be the happiest if we used our back yard as grazing

land and subsequently a sacrificial alter. So, how then can we relate to this parsha and what can we

glean from it?

It took until chapter 5 of Vayikra for me to get it, and these are the laws I want to talk about, the laws

that connect bodily actions and the neshama, or the soul or spirit, which are most definitely still relevant

today. The parsha seems to talk about sins that bring personal guilt. Fortunately, you don’t have

to count very many sheep to fulfill this mitzvah. The sacrifice of only one [female] sheep (or goat should

you prefer goat) is required to repent for these types of sins. If one doesn’t have a goat or sheep, one

can also sacrifice two turtle doves, two young pigeons or even some flour. This flexibility in the offerings

says that many people of various incomes commit these sins and there needs to be a way for everyone

to repent and improve their neshama. I wonder what the modern day alternatives are- what is the direct action that will allow repentance?

I try to use the principles and ideologies that Judaism teaches to guide me how to act, interact and

react and just as we read the Torah again year after year to try and understand the laws and make

them comprehensible and relevant, we use them to try and improve ourselves, even though it can be a

difficult and frustrating undertaking it is be worth it. The mussar movement is all about taking mitzvot

and using them for self-improvement, focusing each week on certain themes. Chapter 5 of Vayikra

offers a theme of repenting for guilt related sins. For any of these sins, are there metaphorical sheep

that we must count? Is there a material substitute or an action in addition to prayer alone that can truly

demarcate repentance and a true desire to change and improve one’s self? Below, I will try and come up

with an action to repent for these sins, sans goats, sheep or turtledoves.

The first law of chapter 5 (Lev. 5: 1, 5:4) says that if you were a witness , but failed to testify, or uttered

an oath that you were unable to fill, that you are subject to punishment. I think this is really about using

words carefully so as not to damage relationships or to hurt others. This law is telling me to be mindful

of my words and be careful not to lie or to utter lashon hara (gossip). These are using the body to

diminish the neshama or yethzer ha tov (good spirit) - and allow the yetzer hara (evil spirit) to dominate.

Instead of doing these things, I should use my speech for good- to praise, to help and to teach. A good

exercise would be to count to ten before I say anything and check to see if the words I am about to say

will help, teach or praise or rather if they will be pointless or even hurtful.

The next law (Lev. 5: 2) discusses guilt associated with touching an unclean animal or remains of an

animal, for which you are subject to punishment. To me, this represents bringing something impure

from another body into your own and therefore also being driven by yetzer hara. I can relate to this

commandment through the way I treat my body and the things I eat and drink and the intention of the

acts themselves. A good exercise would be to plan my meals for the week and really listen to my body,

to try and give it what it needs and not to take in too much, or any other “impure” substance (sugar and

beer in this case) that will not benefit my body and therefore also my neshama in some way.

The final law I want to work on (Lev. 5:3) is if you touch an unclean person (or in an unclean manner-

however you interpret), then you are also unclean. With a fairly liberal interpretation of this law, I can

interpret it to mean that the body itself is sacred, as it houses the neshama and it should be treated as

such as well. An exercise for this is to evaluate the clothing I wear and the messages it sends- whether

it be folding my laundry sooner, being sure to dress more modestly as it gets warmer or dressing more

professionally and how this intention affects how I am projecting myself.

If our actions are impure, then so is our soul and therefore our connection to Hashem but if we fulfill

the sacrifice with all of its intended detail- even if it is in a modified way, this effort will show repentance

and the physical action will move the neshama in the correct direction.

These specifications found in Vayikra, Chapter 5, show the connection between body, spirit and actions.

The sacrifices give a framework to be self-reflective but to act to represent a feeling of guilt, to yourself

and to G-d in a spiritual way and hold us accountable for our actions and provide a legal system of

repercussions only to guide you to be the best person you can.

So I leave you this question to ponder- how will you count your sheep?


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