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Rabbi Kalmar Sermon, Parashat Vayikra - 3 nisan 5780

"Continuous Partial Attention is not Love" (March 27 / 28, 2020)

Harold notices that his wife doesn’t seem to hear him anymore. They’ve been married for 52 years and he worries about her but is not sure what to do. So he goes to their doctor to talk about it. The doctor suggests the following, “When you go home, tell her to stand at one end of the hallway and you stand at the other. Then ask her what’s for dinner. Keep moving closer to her until she responds to your question, so you know exactly how far away she is when she can finally hear you.”

He thought this sounded like a great idea and so he goes home to try it out. He has his wife stand at the end of the hallway and he yells out “Margaret, what are we having for dinner? There was no response. He moved another 10 feet closer and yelled it again, “Margaret, what are we having for dinner?” Still no response. He moved another 15 feet closer and was practically face to face with her. “MARGARET, WHAT ARE WE HAVING FOR DINNER?!” Margaret yelled back, “For the THIRD time, we’re having CHICKEN!!”

In this week’s parsha, Parshat Vayikra, the first word, Vayikra, has a small funny alef letter at the end of the word. Rashi raises two questions. Firstly, what does the language of Vayikra, and he called, teach us which the more common Vayomer, and he said, and Vayidaber, and he spoke, do not? And secondly, what is the point of the small alef? Rashi tells us that the word Vayikra was used to imply that whenever God needs to reach out to someone it has to begin with this language of calling, which implies closeness and love. And in fact it is the letter alef which makes the difference between love and mundane communication – as Rashi tells us – the word Vayikar – Vayikra without the alef – is the way of communicating in impurity and is the way that God talks to Bilaam, the evil prophet of Midian. It implies a coincidental happening and impurity. So the little alef is what turns coincidence and randomness into love and purpose.

Rav Benny Lau points out that the first time we find God calling out to man with love in the Torah is when Adam and Chavah are hiding in the garden.
וַיִּקְרָ֛א יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶל־הָֽאָדָ֑ם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ל֖וֹ אַיֶּֽכָּה, And the Lord God called to man, and He said to him, "Where are you? They have sinned and distanced themselves from God. God is trying to call them back – to bring them close in love.

So there are different ways to call out to each other – and to hear each other - just like and Margaret in the joke. Over 20 years ago Linda Stone, a former Microsoft executive already coined the term “Continuous Partial Attention” to describe our behavior of dividing our attention – it is not multi tasking, which implies accomplishing more at the same time, but how we divide our attention at all times – it is a part of FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out – that leads us to always be looking at multiple things - we are permanently distracted. And when we are not giving things our full attention, when we are divided and that is not love – it is tumah – impurity.

During this time – we must work hard to strengthen the chiba, to strengthen the love. To hear each other – to make sure we are on the same wavelength. During these times of Corona it is easy to get frustrated and angry and to take it out on those closest to us. And for those of you who are by yourselves - when you get angry – you are taking it out on yourselves. So it is key that we not let our attention become divided, but that we give our full attention to ourselves and those around us the love we all deserve.

On that note – a point I always make every year about Pesach cleaning which can only be highlighted this year – is that we must be extra special careful not to allow searching for Chometz to become a distraction from what is most important. Both the Sanzer rov and the Belzer Dayan sent out messages this year saying that it is a trick of the Yetzer Hara to tell us that the Pesach cleaning we are doing is a religious requirement when really often it is something we are doing in excess which leads to yelling and stress and anger. And that especially this year we should make sure that we focus on what is most important – love for our children, our parents, our family – that Pesach should be seen as a joy and not a terror to be feared and despised. With that – I will use this point to be a plug for my class this coming week Wednesday at 8 pm – “Getting Ready for Pesach this year in Light of Corona Virus”.

So lets make every effort to reach out to each other - via phone, Zoom, Facebook Live and even in person with the language of Vayikra – calling out to each other with love. And let’s make sure that we stay away from Vayikar – from paying only half-attention to each other – while we have one eye on the screen, or one lobe of the brain thinking of something else or one ear focused on hearing something else. Because “Continuous Partial Attention” is not love. Love is giving our full and undivided attention to the people who matter most.

Mon, March 8 2021 24 Adar 5781