Any afternoon or evening, any time, with or without kids, I could come over and sit on a stool at the kitchen counter. Donna would make us a pot of nana tea – the comfort of mint mixed with the stimulation of caffeine.
We would chat in the plainest of terms about what was on our minds. How we aren’t sure we are handling difficult coworkers well. How we can deal with feeling ashamed of something we accidentally said. How one of us should interpret a weird, disturbing dream. How we are irrationally angry that we can’t get anyone else in our families to help clean the bathroom.
You name it – we dealt with it openly over that nana tea. Donna had an amazing ability to receive everything without judgment. Worries and self-criticism that you would never share with anyone – you could lay it on the table, talk it through, and it would disappear into smoke as a non-issue.
In some ways, sitting down to nana tea in Donna’s kitchen is like visiting the mishkan (sanctuary) in Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus 1-5). The reasons for bringing a sacrifice are a lot like the reasons for talking over a cup of tea. If you have a special joy to share, you bring a zevach shelamim, a well-being offering. If you fixed a problem but still feel bad about it, you bring an asham, a reparation offering. If you feel creeped out by something uncanny, or if you need to deal with something hideous in national current events, you bring a khatat, a purification offering. The priest takes your offering, and disappears your problems in smoke.
The beginning of Parshat Vayikra invites us into this kind of intimacy with God. The first sentence says, Vayikra HaShem el Moshe – God called to Moshe. In our scribal tradition, the last letter of the word vayikra, the Aleph, is written smaller than the other letters of the word, almost as an afterthought.
Perhaps we can read the tiny aleph as suggesting that there are two alternative readings of the word: you could read it vayikar, as if the aleph weren’t there at all; or you could read it vayikra, pronouncing the aleph. In modern Hebrew, yakar means “precious” and kara means “called.” Perhaps we are supposed to read both meanings. “He called…He made someone precious…He called…He made someone precious.”
This two-faceted word describes the magic of Donna’s kitchen. She invites you in, and in that space, you are precious. Perfect and dear just as you are. Your flaws, your imperfections – insubstantial as smoke.
And this is the magic of the mishkan. Through the technology of the sacrifices in God’s kitchen, your self-doubts become as insubstantial as smoke.
In the Haftorah reading, the prophet Isaiah tells us that idols cannot effect this kind of healing transformation. Believe it or not, he specifically tells us that idols don’t have the right kind of kitchens.
Here Isaiah describes the idolator’s use of wood:
Part of it he burns in a fire:
On that part he roasts meat,
He eats the roast and is sated;
He also warms himself and cries, “Ah,
I am warm! I can feel the heat!”
Of the rest he makes a god – his own carving!
He bows down to it, worships it;
He prays to it and cries,
“Save me, for you are my god!”
The piece of wood helps to meet the idolater’s material needs – it keeps him warm, it helps him cook. So the idolater says, “you are my god!”
But the idolator’s meal fulfills physical needs only. The fears, the guilt, the worries that ought to be burned up are neither received and released. Instead they grow into guiding principles, leading the idolator into ever more confused decision-making.
As Isaiah says,
A deluded mind has led him astray
And he cannot save himself;
He never says to himself,
The thing in my hand is a fraud!
We all have times when we are like Isaiah’s idolater. Difficult, uncomfortable thoughts and feelings may overtake us. We might not recognize ourselves. We might be weighed down with anxiety. We might wonder if we should even have these thoughts and feelings, or if we should tell anyone about it. We might need help figuring out if we are defrauding ourselves!
At these times, we need a kitchen! We need someone who will sit with us, listen and receive without judgment, hold up a mirror, so to speak, with love. It might be a friend like Donna who makes nana tea; it might be a representative of an established organization, like the priests in the mishkan.
Vayikra teaches that an individual cannot deal with worries, guilt, creepiness, or disturbing public events alone. Every one of us needs someone who recognizes the weight of thoughts and feelings – even when our material needs are met, even when we have fixed the practical consequences of our mistakes. Every one of us needs someone who can help lighten the load, turn the substantial into vapour.
Every one of us needs a meal in God’s kitchen!
Adapted from a 2006 dvar Torah. Image: Wikimedia commons