How can I learn from a Law that I Can’t Keep? An Excerpt from Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz

Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz is working on a book of Torah commentary aimed at Modern Orthodox children and their parents that treats midrash not as a replacement for the Torah text, but as a way into the text and a door that opens up interesting conversations. She is currently writing on the earlier parshiot in Vayikra and blends interpretations with analogies and interesting questions to help foster conversations about the text.

(א) וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר יְהֹוָה֙ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃
(1) The LORD called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying:

When the book of Vayikra begins, Moshe is right near the Ohel Moed, or the Tent of Meeting, close enough so that when Hashem calls for him, he hears Hashem’s voice from within the tent. Another name for the Tent, which you may have heard before, is the Mishkan. Interesting fact: the entire book of Vayikra will take place at this tent of meeting. They don’t go anywhere for the whole book! They stay put. In fact, as you will see, most of the book does not actually have stories, like the kind you are used to from Breishit or Shmot. There are few characters, and there’s not much action. Most of the book teaches laws or mitzvot, many of which we can no longer keep because they are connected to the Mishkan or Beit Hamikash. But beneath those laws is a set of values or ideas that have a lot to teach us.

How can I learn from a law that I can’t keep?

Good question.

Let’s back up. How do you learn a value or lesson from a story? Stories in the Torah do not come with a line at the end that says: here is the moral of the story. Instead, we draw meaning and important lessons by reading carefully, paying attention to the details of the story, looking at the relationship between how people behave and others react, and how things play out in the long run.

With the mitzvot of Vayikra, we can adopt a similar attitude. Mitzvot also do not come with a tagline that says: here’s the big idea. And when we look closely at them, we are not necessarily going to pay that much attention to the specifics of how to do the mitzvah, since we cannot perform them today, without a Mishkan (or a Beit Hamikdash). But we may look out for other “clues,” in order to get at the big idea the Torah could be teaching us through the mitzvah. What kind of clues? Well, we might pay attention to an unusual word that the Torah uses, or to the order of items in a mitzvah. Or we might figure out an important message from the mitzva’s ‘neighbors’ in the Torah -- what it is placed right next to.

Some mitzvot, like Kibbud Av’Vaem, don’t take that much detective work. The value is pretty obvious! When you honor your parents, you are showing respect to the people who gave you life and who take care of you. Keeping this mitzvah will help shape you into a respectful person who understands hakarat hatov, or gratitude. But the values in many mitzvot in Vayikra are less obvious to see. We don’t keep many of them anymore, so we don’t get the chance to experience what the mitzvah is trying to teach. To find the value we need to read carefully and we need to think creatively.

If we learn to read Vayikra this way, you don’t have to keep the mitzvah itself in order to learn something. You just have to be open to being a kind of archaeologist, who gets really excited when she finds a small item buried beneath the surface. That small “item” or word can be just the clue that leads us to the big treasure!

About Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz

Dr. Tammy Jacobowitz is the chair of the Bible department at the SAR High School, and is the founding director of Makom B'Siach at SAR, an immersive adult education program for parents. She has taught Bible for the Wexner Heritage program, and she is also an adjunct faculty member of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, where she teaches the Pedagogy of Tanakh. She is a graduate of the Drisha Institute's Scholars Circle, and completed her PhD in Midrash at the University of Pennsylvania in 2010 as a Wexner Graduate fellow. Dr. Jacobowitz is currently at work on a parsha book, geared towards parents reading to young children. She lives in Teaneck, NJ with her husband, Prof. Ronnie Perelis, and their four children.