This is the D'var Torah I gave in the synagogue on Saturday morning, March 12, for Parashat Vayikra.
Most years I trot out the T-shirt about the Jewish calendar and the baseball calendar in March. You know it’s a kind of new year when spring training begins for major league baseball, usually around Purim, and it’s fortuitous that this was the week that the owners and players resolved their labor dispute and opened spring training! This Shabbat marks an actual new year in the Jewish calendar too. In Torah time, the start of the book of Vayikra picks up where Shmot left off, on the first of Nissan in the year after the Exodus. And as it happens, Parashat Vayikra was our first pandemic parasha two years ago, the first Shabbat when it was just me and the Sefer Torah on the bimah and everyone else on a screen.
I looked back on what I said two years ago on that Shabbat, and one year ago when this parasha came around, the first parasha of the second year when the vaccines were rolling out gradually and before Delta and Omicron. Vayikra is not an easy parasha or an easy book (i.e. Leviticus as a whole), but it has opened to me in new ways these past two years.
I have been struck by the wide, blank space in the scroll between the end of Sefer Shmot (Exodus) and the start of Sefer Vayikra (Leviticus). I’ve been struck by the cloud that engulfs the mishkan, the sanctuary -- which last week looked like the certain presence of the Divine Shechinah, the palpable close presence, and this week Moshe doesn’t quite know. I’ve been struck by the tiny letter alef at the end of the first word of the book, and by the offerings the Torah describes, the korbanot, which are translated as sacrifices but come from the word for closeness and coming close.
A blank space, a cloud, a small quite letter, a list of types of closeness-offerings.
The blank is a pause between a year of revolution and tumult and reconstituting, and recovering and repurposing things to make something sacred in the center -- and the next year.
The cloud around the mishkan is somehow both a good sign and a question mark. Last year I called it "cloudy with a chance of Torah." Is there some more Torah to guide us right now? Are we ready to go get it and hear it and use it?
The small letter alef, silent by itself but the letter that could unleash the flow of all the letters, all the names of the Divine and all the good words that can flow out into the world. The alef is the first letter of Anochi, I -- the I of I am Yah your God who brought you out of slavery, the sound of that voice speaking specially to each of us in the way we need; the I of I, of each of us as agents in the world, fully capable of being active builders and fixers, mirroring the Divine Anochi.
What if that letter is too small, what I am teetering on disappearing, what if the Divine voice is. The small alef yearns to be reinflated and reconstituted -- and it is as the book of Vayikra unfolds.
How does that happen? Not all at once. It happens through the korbanot, the closeness-offerings.
In the entire book of Leviticus, the people move not an inch forward toward the promised land, after they moved so far out of Mitzrayim (Egypt) in the book of Shmot (Exodus). That drives me a crazy, I said a year ago. Come on, if there were ever a need to see a promised land and get to a new place it’s now. If there were ever a need to take this Torah out for a spin, it’s now!
But although the people don’t move forward, they do move. They move by means of the specific korbanot. They move toward the center, and back to their tents. They move toward their leaders, and away, and toward each other, and toward those giving birth or those who have died. They reconstitute the alef and reinflate it by moving in specific ways.
The offerings we learn about are the olah, the completely burnt offering -- reflecting the feeling of burnout or the frustration toward things we wish we could destroy completely. The todah, the gratitude offering. The shlamim, the offering of wellbeing and wholeness. The chattat, the offering in response to falling short, to guilt and shame -- one person, a leader, a whole community.
These are the basic emotions of the start of the new year both in the Torah and for us, after a year of tumult and revolution and making new things out of our things
Vayikra says you can’t get to the promised land without perceiving these emotional responses, and moving in response to them. You have to use them as occasions to learn how not just to go somewhere new, but to get closer to each other and close to the center that holds us together. To make the cloud less cloudy and more Torah.
So I come close today to you and to this sanctuary with my own olah offering, reflecting on the ways I have been burnt out for a time during this past year and two years. I come close today with my todah, my gratitude offering, close to you and to this sanctuary of many sanctuaries. I am thankful for you who have come, today or many times, to hear my prayers and acknowledge them even when we’re not in the same room, to sing with me even when I can’t hear you or hardly can. Thankful to my family, for staying together and being good to each other -- and to the Divine for the chen, the unearned grace of having that in in my life. Thankful to everyone who has kept this community going, creatively and with whatever gift you could use to build a sacred place in a new way and specifically by your chesed, your caring for someone. Thankful to colleagues and lay leaders in the Temple, and the six clergy people in town I’ve come to rely on and have become closer to, who have helped me grow in my voice; thankful to rabbis and other colleagues around the country willing to become new partners.
I come close today, to you and to this sanctuary of many sanctuaries, with my shlamim, my offering of wellbeing, because I am overall well, and strong and energetic about my own life at age 55 and my sense of purpose.
And I do come today, close to you and to this sanctuary, with my chattat, with my offering of guilt and shame, for missing the mark and falling short. For not keeping connecting with enough of you who are here and others I don’t see. For not growing our chesed (compassionate work) from responding to needs in the moment to more people knowing who needs more connection. For not taking enough opportunities to teach the Torah of pikkuach nefesh, of what life and death decisions require of us. For not doing enough to bring the Torah I know to you, that would have made us feel more empowered in a topsy-turvy world, because Torah has always made people strong and capable when the world seems out of control. For not starting every meeting, no matter the topic, with how are you, and has anybody spoken to so-and-so lately. For trying these things but not sticking with them when others questioned their value. Those are my chattat offerings.
Each of us has an olah, a todah, a shlamim, and a chattat to bring close -- an offering around burned out, so thankful, wholeness, and guilt. We need to take a beat and articulate these, and bring them close to someone else or to this community. Bring them as you pray in Musaf, the part of the service that recalls and substitutes for the ancient korbanot (Temple offerings). That’s what we need so we can start reenlarging the alef, the I, and reconstituting our center, and removing the cloud that obscures the voice that wants to help us move toward our next promised land.
On this second pandemic anniversary, we begin a new cycle of Torah with Parashat Vayikra and this introduction to korban, to closeness. Which is what we crave. Not just a physical closeness but a real closeness, a communal closeness, more even than we had before. Two years ago at this time, the charge came in these words from Rabbi Yosef Kanevsky, which are as wise and important now as they ever were:
"...the very last thing we need right now is a mindset of mutual distancing. We actually need to be thinking in the exact opposite way. Every hand that we don't shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise..... Let's stay safe. And let's draw one another closer in a way that we've never done before.”