LEAN ON ME
Rabbi David Walk
Back in 1999, there was a fascinating movie based on the Stephen King serial novel, The Green Mile. Without going into all the plot perambulations, it's the story of a death row inmate with amazing powers of healing and empathy. When he transfers these powers to one of the guards by holding him tightly, he tells the beneficiary that he has given him a piece of himself. Of course, it's a work of science fiction, but this dual idea that we can really feel what's going on within another and that we can give a piece of our selves to another is both powerful and redemptive. Without resorting to magic I strongly believe that there are deeply spiritual people who have these abilities. Even without these talents, I think that we must try to exhibit empathy for others and endeavor to give them the support they require and deserve. And, believe it or not, I think that we can see this idea embedded in this week's Torah reading.
Our parsha this week is Vayikra and it's main goal is to introduce the reader to the world of Temple offerings. That's hardly the realm of interpersonal relations, but I still think that we can derive much on that topic from it. Here's the case. The verses tells us that when we bring an offering we must lean on the head of the animal to be offered (Leviticus 1:4). This word for lean in Hebrew is someich. In modern Hebrew this term is mostly used in the figurative sense of rely on me. But in Jewish tradition this term has come to mean rabbinic ordination. The original rabbinic graduation ceremony involved the mentor leaning his hands upon the head of the apprentice. This method was abandoned during the Roman persecutions of the fourth century of the Common Era. When rabbis required verification of authenticity in Babylonia they began the more academic approach prevalent to this day. Rabbis were given license to make legal decisions in specified areas, in which they excelled. But do these two uses of the term really connect to each other? According to the Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, 1550–1619) they do.
In his commentary on our verse the Kli Yakar brings up a famous question, do we perform semicha with one hand or two? Our verse says 'one's hand' in the singular, but in the service of Yom Kippur we're told that the cohen used two hands. To help answer this dilemma the Kli Yakar compares this to the situation of Moshe when he ordained Yehoshua as his successor. Again God instructs Moshe to somaich (lean) on him with one hand (Numbers 27:18), but when the verse records that he did it, it says both hands were used (verse 23). The Kli Yakar is informing us that the two leanings are really the same concept. And according to Maimonides this is the way it was done: The person performing the semichah must do so with all his might by placing both hands on the head of the offering (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Offerings, 3:13). What's the connection between the animal offering and the ordination of an acolyte? According to the Kli Yakar, they both represent atonement. Yehoshua was acting as an atonement for the sin which was on the head of the nation. I'm not so happy with that.
I'd like to suggest an alternative approach. Perhaps the commonality of the offering with Yehoshua was the transfer of something to the recipient. In the case of the offering there is transfer of the guilt from the penitent's psyche to the physical animal. I don't see this as magic, but as symbolic. This physical act helps me to remove this burden from my soul. In the case of the student, the mentor is transferring only good stuff, responsibility, authority, and love.
But why the discrepancy between one hand and two? So, the Kli Yakar differentiates between the thought of sin and the actual performance of the sin. Okay, but how about this? The instruction about the semichah concerns the transferal of something from the leaner onto the leanee. Whether it's the best stuff on earth or toxic material, makes no difference. However, when the event comes to fruition the leaner places another hand, not to give, but to receive. The power of my transferal of guilt to the animal is enhanced by my sense of empathy for the fate of this poor, defenseless being. The necessary catharsis can't be achieved if I don't feel the beast's pain. And, so too, with the student or child. I can't give totally of myself if I don't feel reciprocal love and purpose emanating from the other. How effective can a blessing to my child be, if I don't sense the desire to fulfill this benefice from the other side? We must understand that our greatest of good intentions can't be realized if the recipient isn't on the same wave length. It's almost like harmonics. The closer to the same pitch the more effective the transfer. Moshe was very lucky in the case of his apprentice, Yehoshua. Probably no two individuals ever had such a unity of purpose as those two. We hope to approximate that blending with our children. Maybe our Friday night blessings are more Vulcan mind meld than magic.
Now we can understand why Maimonides used an idea found in the Midrashic translation of Yonatan ben Uziel, when he added the idea that the leaning must be done with all one's might. This action isn't to be done cavalierly; it must be done with strength conviction and passion.
I'm not really into the concept of animal sacrifices. I have trouble identifying with the practice, but that doesn't mean that we can't learn important lessons from this material, which can be applied to our lives. And to a lesser extent it's true of science fiction. Like the gentle giant on death row, when we hold our children tight, we can give the best of ourselves and try to read their innermost aspirations. Just remember, it's not about magic; it's about love.
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