Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Shabbat Shalom everyone. I am so deeply grateful that we can be together in spirit even as we are physically apart on this holy Shabbat, and I thank God that we live in a time when the technology to keep us connected is both available and effective. Even more, I thank God for the driven medical researchers and the courageous health care providers who are working tirelessly to find a way forward and ultimately defeat the novel Coronavirus.
As you might imagine, I have devoted significant time to thinking about what I might share with you this evening. We need to find comfort, and I want to provide words of comfort for us all, but in order to get there, we first deserve some honesty. So let’s get real for a moment: we are scared; we are frustrated; we are anxious; we are confused; and we are so many other emotions all at the same time. It is important to acknowledge our emotions, to let them move through us, and then to move on. However, there is one emotion which we have not hearing a lot about, and which I think deserves our attention: grief.
Most of us are experiencing grief. David Kessler, who co-wrote the iconic book with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross on the five stages of grief, notes that we are feeling a number of different griefs:
“We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we are grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air. … we’re also feeling anticipatory grief. Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain … With a virus this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety. I don’t think we’ve collectively lost our sense of general safety like this.”
That’s a lot of grief. And that’s a lot to hold.
This is the time I like to turn to the Torah for help, but my initial glance was unsatisfying. This week begin a new book of the Torah, Leviticus, with parashat VaYikra. VaYikra literally means “and God called.” That’s a great start! However, what God calls for in this passage are the priestly sacrifices in the temple, each rite and ritual meticulously described in detail and commanded by the Divine. What do we do with that today?
Ok, so maybe I should go back to David Kessler. He continues:
“Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. There’s denial, which we say a lot of early on: This virus won’t affect us. There’s anger; You’re making me stay home and taking away my activities. There’s bargaining: Okay, if I social distance for two weeks everything will be better, right? There’s sadness: I don’t know when this will end. And finally there’s acceptance. This is happening; I have to figure out how to proceed. Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually.”
Ah … Now it comes into focus. The Torah portion that is. When we read VaYikra, we read about the world as it once was. When the Romans destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, the rabbis understood that it would no longer be possible to continue with the sacrificial rites. They mourned their loss, and the loss of all Israel, and they grieved, and they eventually accepted the need to change and transform – and in doing so they bequeathed to us the Judaism we now practice. Dr. Andrew Rehfeld, the President of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, recently wrote a letter to alumni in which he reminded us that, “rituals are human creations that bring meaning, discipline, awareness, and awe to our world. And as human creations, they can be modified to reflect changing circumstances. When the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish People demonstrated the ability to innovate even in the face of calamity.”
The same is true today. There is so much, despite everything we are mourning, which we can actually do to make a difference. And, it turns out, that while we may have left animal sacrifices to history, there are modern day sacrifices which we can imbue with meaning.
Rabbi Nikki DeBlosi draws our attention to one little verse in our portion:
“You shall season your every offering of meal with salt; you shall not omit from your meal offering the salt of our covenant with God; with all your offerings you must offer salt.” [Lev. 2:13]
She describes how the rabbis interpreted salt to represent tears of pain and loss. How does this relate to the here and now? Let’s first define the word “sacrifice.” In its simplest form, it is giving something up. In the ancient world we would give up (literally up) to heaven, to God, for the greater good of Israel. Today, despite the blaming, finger pointing and hoarding which seems to surround us, millions of people are making sacrifices not only for their own safety, but for the greater good. You are making holy sacrifices, we all are, for the sake of heaven, and for the greater good. And, our sacrifices matter.
Rabbi Deblosi notes, ironically, what is missing from our store shelves: milk, flour, pasta, frozen vegetables, toilet paper. Toilet paper! Disinfectants, medical masks, latex gloves. So, what are the stores full up with? Salt. There is more than enough salt to go around.
All of this is to say, that it is ok, and perhaps even good, to season our sacrifices with the salt of our tears, with our pain, our anxiety, our grief. This is the path to acceptance and to exerting greater power over our lives. This is what will allow us to find new paths forward, paths which perhaps we cannot yet even imagine. This is what will enable us to let go of what we cannot control, and to live in the present rather than worry about what might or might not be. This is what will allow us to stock up on what we really need: compassion, kindness, generosity, love.
We will get through this. We will get through this together. We are a resilient and creative people. We are eminently capable. And we are completely human.
VaYikra! It is to this that God calls.
Exodus 35:1 –40:38
Let’s be honest. Most of us are scared.
The COVID-19 virus is spreading rapidly, store shelves are emptying, the stock market is crashing, people are losing their jobs, and many of us are staying at home in an attempt to “flatten the curve” of the disease’s spread. And far too many us are already displaying symptoms of the novel coronavirus and seeking or receiving treatment. Just two weeks ago, the world seemed so different, so much more stable than today, at least for Marylanders.
It’s ok to say we are scared. Indeed, we need to name our fears and anxieties. How else can we overcome them? Two thousand years ago, Rabbi Ben Zoma taught:
“Who is mighty? One who controls his own self/urges, as it is said, ‘One who is slow to anger is better than the mighty and one who rules one’s spirit than one who conquers a city’ [Prov. 16:32]” [Pirke Avot 4:1]
Given the worry and uncertainty in the world around us, we might be tempted to give into our yetzer hara (our urge towards evil). According to the rabbis, the yetzer hara is what controls those dark inner voices we all have. You know the ones I mean, the voices which tell us to give up hope, to stop trying, to give in to our base instincts, worries and anxieties.
Ben Zoma reminds us that we are in charge of our decision-making trees, that we can talk back to the yetzer hara, and that when we do so we are increasing our strength and our resilience: we become like mighty warriors.
As the world seems to darken around us, Rabbi Noah Farkas draws our attention to the beginning of the Torah, when the world was filled with darkness, chaos and emptiness. He writes:
“God shed light upon the deep, and divided the light from the darkness by naming it light and dark, and by choosing to look upon the chaos and making a world. It’s the most important choice in the Bible. God could have let the chaos stand on its own, but instead God chose to create. Confronting the darkness, God called upon the light, and the world came into being. And so it is with each of us at this moment. We can let the chaos stand or we can look upon the fear that is gripping us and cast light upon it. For it is through dark moments like this where we can choose to create something beautiful.”
Our yetzer hara tells us to binge on Netflix and ice cream, play video games, or do whatever it is we do to retreat from the world. However, we have other options. We can seek ways to stay connected; we can support those who are working tirelessly to help defeat the virus and treat the sick; we can find new avenues to keep our economy going, or support our children’s education, or look out for our neighbors, or the myriad other ways we can make a difference; we can create a whole new world.
To help us stay grounded, we can also continue to learn from Torah, and this week’s parasha is rich with inspiration. On Shabbat we will conclude the book of Exodus with VaYak’hei/Pekudei. In it the Israelites, stuck in the Wilderness of Sinai, finally finish building the mishkan, the special Tent of Meeting where the Divine Presence would dwell in their midst. They are ready to begin their journey into an unknown new world, away from the slavery of Egypt and towards the Promised Land!
In the midst of all of this, there is one detail, which especially caught my attention, and also Rabbi Farkas’:
“Six days shall you do your work, but on the seventh, you shall have a sabbath of complete rest.” [Ex. 35:2]
On the one hand (and there are always at least two hands) there is nothing new here. This past week has been one of frenetic activity for me (and perhaps for you as well). With our amazing synagogue team, I have been working non-stop to try to move our temple from a physical operation to a virtual one: developing online content and communication mechanisms; life-cycle, education, and pastoral care protocols; and continuing outreach to and support for our members and neighbors. I can honestly say that I have never worked so hard in my life. It is easy in this environment (at least for me) to say that we have no time for anything but our work. In a way, I imagine this is how the Israelites felt as they built the mishkan. Their very lives and their future depended upon bringing God into their midst. Who could possibly stop, even for Shabbat? But that would be a mistake. We also need time to rest, we desperately need Shabbat.
We already knew this, at least intellectually if not in our kishkes (our guts). However, Rabbi Farkas introduces a second way to interpret the commandment to rest on Shabbat. He notes that just when things get the most intense, the Torah reminds us that our work is not everything. Yes, we need to work, but we also need to remember why we work.
Whether we are focused on homeschooling our kids, or keeping our businesses going in an ever-changing economy, whether we are keeping our infrastructure intact, or providing medical care, this crisis provides us with the opportunity to step back and take stock. Why are we doing what we do? Is the way we are used to doing things the best way to realize our deepest ‘whys’? How can we use this time to rethink and recreate the rhythms of our lives to better serve our higher purpose? How can we face the darkness and what can we choose to create?
This Shabbat let’s take the time to catch our breath. Let’s bring light to the darkness with our Shabbat candles, and conquer our fears enough to create a true Shabbat Shalom, a sabbath of rest, reflection and peace.
Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
What do we do when we find ourselves in an ongoing, high-anxiety environment which is also a “reliable information desert”? This is the Wilderness we have found ourselves in as the COVID-19 virus has spread to become a worldwide pandemic. When we are scared and do not have enough real information to understand our predicament or the best paths forward, we do what we have always done. We grasp at straws, and if we can’t find any, we make do with whatever we can find and pin our hopes upon that. In other words, as our Religious School Administrator Jen Smith reminds us, we build a Golden Calf.
In this week’s parasha, God calls Moses to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the tablets. The people stayed at the base of the mountain and waited …
… and waited
… and waited
… and waited
Almost 40 days passed, and there was no word or sign from Moses. Fear set in, and perhaps even a little panic:
“And the people saw that Moses lagged in coming down the mountain, and the people assembled against Aaron and said to him, ‘Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’” [Ex. 32:1]
Yet, Moses had not abandoned the people, and more importantly, neither had God. Fear, uncertainty, impatience, anxiety – when combined together these emotions can lead us down a dark path.
Unlike the Israelites in the Wilderness, we do have some knowledge: we have both science and Torah. When it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak, we need to pay close attention to what the scientists and medical authorities say, and we should follow their advice and execute their protocols. Although there is much we still do not understand about the virus, our knowledge is growing daily, and we already have the means to keep ourselves safer through “social” distancing and personal hygiene (hand washing, etc.) We also have Torah and Jewish values, which can help to guide us through this Wilderness.
I am not a scientist or a medical expert, and so have nothing to add from that perspective. I am a rabbi, and would like to share five specific Jewish values (with especial thanks to Rabbi Joe Black of Denver) which I have found to be both centering and uplifting. Although there are others we could add to the list, these are the five values we looked to as we made the difficult decision to close down our synagogue building for the next few weeks. My hope is that these values may help you in your own decision making as we do our best to weather this health crisis.
1.Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life): Of all 613 commandments in the Torah, none is more important than saving a life. We are allowed to violate virtually every law (except murder, idolatry and adultery) in order to save a life. Indeed, there is a story of a rabbi in Europe many years ago during a flu outbreak (I am not sure which one) which occurred on Yom Kippur. Although it was a sacred fast day, he brought chicken soup into the sanctuary and compelled everyone to eat. Today, in the midst of this outbreak, your health and safety is of paramount importance to us. Indeed, it is more important than anything else. Period.
2.Lo Ta’ashok Sachir (You shall not abuse a laborer) [Deut. 24:14]: we understand that this crisis will create economic hardship, especially for the most vulnerable in our midst. Therefore, we have decided to continue to pay our entire staff and our vendors throughout the crisis, even when our building is closed. This is what the Torah’s view of a just community looks like in the midst of a crisis.
3.Rachmanut (compassion): we must stay sensitive to the ways our family, neighbors, and friends may be suffering during this crisis, and reach out to provide support and comfort. We are activating a more robust spiritual support and pastoral counselling protocol to make sure we are here for you, and for each other. Please watch for updates with more information.
4.Simchah (celebration): although we might be afraid, that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to celebrate! We celebrated Shabbat services by live streaming to your homes from our empty sanctuary, and we celebrated Torah through a study session on Zoom on Shabbat morning (led from my home study). We will continue to do both of these things and more as we develop the capability. We also found a way to celebrate b’nei mitzvah for those families who wished to keep their dates, and to find new dates for those who wish to postpone. Regardless, every child and family will still have loads to celebrate.
5.Al Tifrosh min HaTzibur (Do not separate yourself from the community) [Pirke Avot 2:4]: These words from the famous rabbi Hillel are more important than ever. All of the medical experts and authorities are emphasizing the importance of social distancing in order to “flatten the curve” of the disease’s spread. However, what they really mean is physical distance, not social distance. We absolutely need more physical isolation, but we also need social, spiritual and emotional connection. We need to find ways to come together, even as we continue to maintain our physical distance, so that we can draw strength and comfort from one another. At Beth Ami we are utilizing technology to allow us to do just that. Our professional team is online, accessing everything at the synagogue from home, looking for ways to stay connected with you. We will be holding virtual appointments, virtual services and virtual Torah study – and looking for more ways to stay together as a community.
Finally, I am reminded of the words of King Solomon the Wise: “gam zeh ya’avor (this too shall pass).” Let us remember that this is a temporary situation, that the day will come when the danger from the virus will have passed. May that day come speedily, and in the meantime, I pray that we all stay physically safe and spiritually connected.
Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
This week’s Torah portion details the lavish vestments worn by the High Priest of Israel. His priestly garments included a special robe with pomegranates and bells (made of pure gold), a golden breastplate with 12 semi-precious stones set in it (one for each tribe of Israel), golden epaulettes with a single large stone placed in each inscribed with the names of the tribes of Israel, and a golden forehead plate inscribed with the words ‘Holy to God.’ Could there be a more impressive looking costume in all the camp of Israel?
We might think that this impressive clothing is simply one of the benefits of leadership, that political and communal authority are tools for self-aggrandizement.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The rabbis teach:
“A certain gentile who was walking past the rear of a study hall overheard the voice of a teacher reciting: ‘These are the vestments that they shall make: a breastplate and an ephod …’ [Ex. 28:4]. He [the gentile] said, ‘these lavish garments, who are they for?’ They replied, ‘for our High Priest.’ The gentile said to himself – I will go and convert so that they will appoint me as the High Priest! He came before Shammai and said to him, ‘convert me on condition that you have me appointed as the High Priest.’ Shammai chased him out with his builder’s cubit in hand. He then came before Hillel and Hillel converted him. Hillel said, ‘can we appoint a king unless he is familiar with the ceremonies of royalty?’ So the Gentile went and learned scripture [about being the High Priest]; when he reached ‘and the stranger who approaches [the holy of holies] shall die’ [Num. 3:10] he asked Hillel, ‘this verse, about whom was it stated?’ He said, ‘even about David, King of Israel [meaning absolutely anyone who is not the proper High Priest in a state of absolute purity will die if they approach].”
The vestments of the High Priest were indeed impressive. They set him apart from the rest of Israel because he was the conduit between Israel and God. What could be more important to the survival of the people than maintaining God’s presence in their midst – especially while we were still wandering in the wilderness? The appearance of the High Priest dressed in such finery added gravitas to the rites he performed.
As for the priest himself, how could he not feel the incredible weight of those vestments? The gold woven into his garments. The large golden breastplate with the stones for each tribe weighing against his heart, the weight of Israel on his shoulders, the weight of God on his forehead – all crafted from pure gold. To bear the burden of these garments, one had to bear the burden of responsibility. One mistake and the connection could be severed. One mistake and he could lose his life.
The convert had it all wrong. He thought he would find personal glory through the priesthood. With study he came to understand that the opposite was true – he would face only danger and heavy responsibility by pursuing such a role.
The garments were not merely to make the priest look and feel special, but reminders that all of us have our place, embedded in gold, among the people. The high priest did not place himself above us, but rather made room for everyone, each tribe given equal representation on the breastplate, all of us seeking our own communion with God. According to Torah, then, great leaders are not arrogant; but instead cultivate humility.
As for the convert, what happened to him? He begged Hillel not to make him the high priest, and continued to study Torah for the rest of his life.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras