Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
This week we begin a new book of Torah- Vayikra- Leviticus. Our journey out of the land of Mitzrayim, out of slavery hits a pause. Before we go any further from Sinai, any further away from the sin of the golden calf, we are given the tools for reconnection with God. Leviticus begins with a veritable menu of meals to offer God as a way of maintaining connection. The sacrifices of ox, goat, sheep, bread, oil, and frankincense are cooked, baked and roasted - each combination a specific offering of thanks or cleansing of transgressions. Some sacrifices are offered daily to simply maintain a healthy connection with the Deity.
It is important to note that sacrificial systems like this were used widely throughout the ancient Near-East and throughout the world as the primary means for the worship of one or many Gods. Sacrificial systems of offering all manner of foods and incense to deities is, in fact, still practiced around the globe today.
In Hebrew the word for a sacrifice is korban. It comes fro the root- to draw close. The word itself signifies the purpose of sacrifice: to come close to God.
After our Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, our sacrificial system collapsed. This primary means for connecting with God was no longer available. The sages at that time, our early Rabbis, responded to this spiritual crisis by substituting prayer as our primary offering. Prayer became the new spiritual technology for connecting with God. Speech became the tool.
In our mystical tradition speech is understood as the tool of Creation. Our Torah teaches that the world was created through ten utterances by Elohim. Each time a new stratum of creation comes into being it is through Elohim uttering the word “ Vayehi- Let there be…” And so it was. It is through speech that thoughts are manifested in the world. What is conceived in the minds eye finds expression through speech.
Speech, our uniquely human ability to communicate complex ideas and strong emotion has the power to build relationships or to destroy them.
So too, the internal conversation with which we are all engaged, has the power to damage our own selves when it is too critical. How often do we beat ourselves up with ‘should haves’ and ‘could haves’, with unrelenting self-judgments that create inner pain?
All speech arises within us first as thought. The Holy Baal Shem Tov teaches that we can become aware of the process through which thought becomes speech. We can refine this process, slow it down and turn speech into a holy act of Creation rather than an act of destruction. Through awareness one can turn speech into a transformative act. Easier said than done, for sure, yet here are some concrete ways in which we can develop awareness about our use of speech.
Before responding to someone or initiating a conversation, you might ask yourself these questions:
Are my words kind?
Will my words support or build connection?
Will they damage my connection with this person?
Is it really necessary to say everything on my mind?
Might restraint be more effective?
What are my personal wounds that might be driving my words?
Our tradition teaches that speech is an act of creation. So let us ask ourselves: what do we want to create?
May we each bring more awareness to this remarkable process by which thought becomes speech and speech creates relationship. May our words become a source of healing. May we turn them into vessels of light and kindness. May we use this gift of speech as a korban- a holy offering that draws us each a little bit closer to one another, in peace.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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