March 19, 2021
This Shabbat, we begin the book of Leviticus, or Vayikra in Hebrew. And most conveniently, our first portion is also called Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26). And to be sure, this is about sacrifices – Animal offerings, Grain offerings, and even monetary offerings – Korbanot, as we call them in Hebrew. Technically speaking, each sacrifice was designed to help the ancient priests – in practicing their sacrificial rites – to draw our ancestors closer to God. The root of korbanot – sacrifices – is kuf.resh.vet., which means to bring near. So each korban then, each sacrifice is designed to bring us closer to God as well.
The thing is since the Temple fell so long ago, and the historic sacrificial practices disappeared all the way back in the first century CE, we must now think differently about the sacrifices we make in our own time. So what sacrifices do we still make? Mostly abundantly, I observe that we set time and energy aside to work hard, study hard, and play hard. In doing so, we earn ourselves a rich sense of fulfillment. On the other hand, we may make sacrifices we wish we didn’t make so much- like working instead of resting, like playing instead of working, like working instead of spending more time with loved ones.
And how about if we hone in specifically on Jewish sacrifices we make. What would that list look like? We set aside time like this very moment to accommodate Jewish practices like Shabbat, we sacrifice treasure in the form of tzedakah. In addition to these sacrifices, we – and this is especially true of our lay leaders – give of our skills and our wisdom to make Temple Shalom a stronger force for good and an enduringly sacred community. Moreover, in order to empower our spirits to soar, we must, as some say, let go and let God in. Put in human terms, we have to surrender our materialism or our addictions or our grudges – the chains in our lives that hold us back, that prevent our souls from taking flight. Overcoming the emotional and spiritual challenges that prevent our progress requires a certain courage that calls us to sacrifice our fears. But regardless of whether or not our sacrifices are for the greater good or our own good, each of us as individuals is called to reckon.
This individual reckoning finds great resonance in the wisdom of a Chasidic sage named Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, also known as the Sefat Emet. As he taught, “sacrifice is a very personal act. Sacrifice has to do with offering our most unique gifts to God or to a world we wish to heal or to make whole – gifts like our innermost strengths: our honesty; our kindness; our generosity; our unselfishness; our resilience; our adaptability. Giving away the best of ourselves in the name of God. Giving away the best of ourselves in the name of a fragile world made less broken by our offerings.” But there’s more. He also teaches that sacrifice calls on us as unique human beings to sacrifice some of our own individuality so that we may allow ourselves to become part of a greater whole.
That is to say we are not just for ourselves. We are also for our people Israel, and more locally our own Jewish community. But we are also part of our local, national, and global community that must cooperate in the healing enterprise this age summons. That means staying home instead of going out. That means giving up some freedom for the greater good. That means letting go of the status quo and redefining our lives with new meaning and purpose. That means letting go of a binding past and looking forward to a future in which, we can return to the “next normal.” This means saying I’m sorry and resetting our relationships in a spirit of forgiveness and new opportunity. That means being more than thankful for our own well-being and giving gratitude to those who must leave the safety of their own homes to battle the Coronavirus or whose jobs keep essential commerce moving forward and ensure necessities are met.
In Vayikra, whether historically or currently, think of sacrifice as brought by the individual to the collective; the sacrifice brought by the one to the many. Our sacred, individual work takes place not just in our own lives, but inside the fabric of community. By submerging ourselves into the larger totality of the Jewish people and the world around us, by giving up some of our self-focus, our tradition tells us we put ourselves in a better position to discover our internal truths – because of what others reflect back to us; what we learn from others; what we learn from the impact we make on others, and they in their own personal work make on us. This is what it means to make a community.
So whether its compassion or justice or other personal gifts that we bring in our approach to God and a better life, let us offer those gifts among our community, who in turn will teach us how to enhance our own blessings, bringing us all closer to the loving warmth of God’s light and the healing glow of a world made whole.