Thursday, 21 Mar 2024

Written by Matt Turchin, rabbinical student

What do a bull, a ram, a goat and a rabbi have in common?

 If you want to know, stick with me to the end. But first, a story:

Twenty-six years ago this Shabbat, a much smaller me stood on the bimah of Temple Sinai of Glendale, California, shaking a bit, but well prepared.

I did not become a bar mitzvah on or around my 13th birthday. For reasons which made perfect sense to me at the time, I decided to postpone it for three months, to the 28th of March, my dad’s birthday.

I remember so much time spent sitting at the piano, confronted by the cantillation sheet music, a walkman in one hand and headphones perched awkwardly over one ear so that I could hear the recording my tutor had made, while simultaneously trying to catch the notes as I tapped them out on the keys, over and over again, punctuated by the screech of the cassette rewinding in short bursts, and my own attempts to mimic it all. But the music for the Torah and Haftarah was only one aspect of the ordeal.

I also remember drowning in the unfriendly language of the translation, barely deciphering a text which was already so very complicated, entirely focused on animal sacrifices designated to be offered as recompense for guilt incurred, an ancient practice which no longer can be performed.

I remember struggling to connect.

Somehow, through extensive study of my brother’s large red volume of “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” by W. Gunther Plaut, a few chats with the rabbi, and a bit of dictionary work, I managed to gain enough understanding of the text of Vayikra to find a connection between the ancient rite of animal sacrifice and the modern process of seeking atonement.

What I actually said on that day is lost to time, perhaps secreted away in some box collecting dust in a storage unit in California. It brings me a bit of pain to think that I will never know the words I used to deliver the first D’var Torah of my life, nor will I be able to see just how much my notions regarding our most sacred text have developed over the past two-and-a-half decades. But in the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter.

I have now helped four separate b’nei mitzvah to navigate this same parashah. There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of teaching a student, especially when you have a strong connection to the material.

It takes a great deal of trust for a family to put so much into the hands of a b’nei mitzvah tutor, to have faith and to trust that the person they have designated will take their child through that journey, provide support and help them to achieve or exceed the expectations and demands of the day. As a synagogue rabbi, it takes a great deal of trust in the tutor, in the student and in the process, to believe that it will all come together in the end. I suppose that must go both ways.

One of the words for “trust” in Hebrew is samakh, which can also mean “to lean, lay, rest, or support.”

This word, in all of its variant forms, occurs only 48 times in the entire Hebrew Bible, making it quite rare. And of those, 9 are found in this one parashah – Vayikra –  with each occurrence referring to the instruction to lay one’s hands upon the head of an animal being offered to God, whether it be a bull, a ram, or a goat, immediately before slaughtering that animal and handing its carcass over to Aaron and his sons to do their gruesome priestly duty.

Of all of the possible words which could have been used, why this particular root?    (SaMaKh)

What is happening at this moment, when a person, preparing to present the designated sacrificial animal to the priests, must first lay a hand upon its head?

Is it trust?

Trust that this offering will be enough to fix whatever damage has occurred in the relationship with God.

Is it support?

Seeking some kind of support from this innocent animal whose blood is about to be spilt for human sins.

Is it an act of appointment?

Appointing this particular representative of God’s creations as a designated sacrifice.

All of these are possible meanings of samakh.

Really, though, the word “sacrifice” isn’t exactly an appropriate term for this animal or its purpose. Instead, the Torah uses the term korban “offering” – denoting proximity, closeness, the approaching of one party to another.

For this is the purpose of the animal offerings described in the Bible – to bring one close to God. In order to offer a korban, one must physically be at the Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, and later, the Temple in Jerusalem, as this is the place where God would descend and dwell among the Israelites.

This conveys a sense that, in order to make reparations, one must be in proximity to the injured party. A damaged relationship creates distance and only the acts which repair that damage will be capable of narrowing that divide, bringing one karov – close – to the other.

And this brings us back to another essential meaning behind the word samakh – “proximity, closeness”. It denotes a specific type of relationship, namely that one party derives support from the other through this act.

There is a derivative term used in later Rabbinic texts to describe this act – smikhat yad, or semikhah – the laying of hands. If you perked up at the mention of this word, then you’ve just made the connection:

What do a bull, a ram, a goat and a rabbi have in common?

They are all appointed for service using the same gesture – the laying of hands – Semikhah. It is how Moses conferred leadership upon Joshua before his death, and how rabbis of ancient and modern times have conferred ordination, bringing new leaders and teachers into the fold.

And as I have nearly arrived at that hopeful destination, when an established rabbi and trusted teacher will (with God’s help) bring me near, lay her hands upon my head and confer semikhah upon me, I have to ask:

Who is supporting whom through this act?

Perhaps it just means that I’m being prepared to be offered up as a korban on the bimah of my future synagogue… though I’m fairly hopeful that I’ll come through it all in one piece.

I suppose I’ll just have to trust the process.

Now, before you head off into your final preparations for Shabbat, permit me one more thought. We’re not quite finished yet, so let’s bring this thing full circle.

There is another relevant time when the laying of hands is used, and it relies on an entirely different root – shin, yud, tav – ’shiyt.’

This word describes how Jacob, at the end of his life, blessed his grandchildren, laying his hands upon their heads. Each Friday evening, Jewish parents around the world have the opportunity to re-enact this laying of hands, reciting the words which many congregations reserve as the concluding benediction for each Shabbat service – the Priestly Blessing with which Aaron and his sons were instructed to bless the people.

Twenty-six years ago, that much smaller me stood in front of the ark facing the rabbi as she privately shared her words of advice, the contents of which, like my D’var Torah of that day, are lost to the passage of time, however, her final words as she laid her hands upon my shoulders have stayed with me throughout all these years.

Rabbis are not priests, and can’t actually confer God’s blessings, but this is something different. It is a message of hope, trust and support on this Shabbat day of rest and for every future Shabbat:

May God bless you and keep you.

May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you.

May God’s face turn towards you and grant you Shalom.

To the memory of my teacher, Rabbi Carole Meyers, I dedicate this D’var Torah, and also to the memories of those teachers whom we have all lost over the course of the journey. Their trust and support have been their greatest gifts.

Matt Turchin, rabbinical student




The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.