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.
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