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Parashat Vayikra 5783

March 20, 2023

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Keeping focus on sacred connections
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayikra
by Rabbi Steven Altarescu (’14)

The Book of Vayikra begins where Exodus leaves off. The Israelites have finished building the Mishkan and God has shown approval through the appearance of a cloud of God’s Presence. Exodus thus ends triumphantly with a description of the work being finished;

“Now the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of YHVH filled the Mishkan” (Exodus 40:34)

We are then told that Moses:

“was not able to come into the Tent of Meeting for the cloud was dwelling on it and the Presence of YHVH filled the Mishkan.” (Exodus 40:35)

Vayikra begins with God calling out to Moses:

“YHVH called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting…” (Leviticus 1:1)

The building of the Mishkan and the blessing of God’s presence add a sense of completion to a long process of becoming a nation and receiving the Torah. The Israelite community has built a place so God could dwell amongst them. It seems all well and good.

Vayikra teaches us that this ideal is an aspiration that is wonderful; but what happens when this utopian vision of God’s closeness with the people is disrupted? On Shavuot we like to understand the giving of the Torah based on the analogy of a bride and groom. With this analogy in mind, we could understand Vayikra as dealing with issues that arise when this marital relationship is challenged, when one or another partner offends or hurts the other unintentionally. How does one repair the breach?

In acknowledging the human tendency to do and say things that hurt another, often without thought or intention, we can understand the importance of having a systematic way to repair relationships. The Torah provides a systematic ritualistic way to repair an individual and a community’s disruption of a relationship with God.

Everett Fox[1] calls these rituals attempts to repair “the potential disruption of utopia.”  Understood in this fashion we could approach each type of sacrifice in the context of keeping a close relationship to a loved one, and repairing that relationship if one has inadvertently hurt or offended the other.

I see the institution of sacrifices and offerings as an acknowledgement that we need to give more than just ‘lip service’ to a relationship. Telling someone I love you, I need you, I want you, without any acts that go along with these words is vacuous.

The act of putting one’s hands on an animal about to be killed is a very powerful image for me. Feeling the life of an animal under one’s hands sends a message of the reality of living in our own mortal body that will have its own end at some time, and the embodied life of our loved ones.

Understanding our mortality viscerally and not abstractly should translate for each of us to see that every living moment in one’s life is both precious, transitory and powerful.

There are two experiences that I have had where I felt the power of this message. One came as I was jogging on a path next to a street in a New Jersey suburb. I saw in front of me on the road a small animal that had been run over and was lying dead. I did not feel right passing by and allowing this carcass to be run over by more and more cars. I don’t quite know why but it offended a certain sense of the sacredness of this being that had once been alive. I decided to try to pick up the animal, a raccoon, and at least put the dead body in a nearby wooded area. I gathered some small branches so I could scoop the animal up without touching it with my hands. As I picked it up I felt the weightiness of this animal and thought about the word ‘kavod’ – which means both honor and weighty or heavy – and thought about the connection to feeling the physical weightiness of this dead creature and the sense of honor it deserves to not be strewn in the road.

The other incident is being part of a hevra kaddisha and assisting in a taharah for a man whom I had the fortune of getting to know a little bit over the course of two years. Herman was a pillar of a local Jewish community and a WWII veteran who was on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He was the leader of a platoon that lost almost every one of his soldiers and he related to me that he had nightmares almost every night about this loss of these lives 70 years ago. For forty years he ran a program for teens to lead services once a month and go on trips as a thank you. When Herman passed away, I was available and needed to serve and assist in his taharah. The process of taharah includes cleaning, removing bandages, ritually washing and placing a shroud on the meit (dead person) and then placing the meit in the coffin. Once again I felt the power of life and death, the weightiness ‘kavod’ of a life literally in my hands.

I imagine this experience of the ‘kavod’ of life being the aim of laying one’s hands on an animal that will be slaughtered and burned as an offering.  The process of bringing this animal to the altar, placing your hands and feeling its aliveness before it is slaughtered hopefully serves as an embodied reminder of the preciousness of all beings, of this being. A person has their hands on the animal due to their not honoring their relationship to the sacred presence of God and other people. The act of sacrificing this animal is meant to restore one’s awareness of sacred presence that has been disrupted and hopefully cause one to up the level of their awareness of their behavior.

While I do not advocate restoring the sacrificial system it is unfortunate that much of humankind has moved further and further away from visceral experiences that bring awareness of the weightiness or ‘kavod’ of life. Spending so much of our time in ‘virtual worlds’ in front of a screen can cause us to lose our connection with the reality of our mortal bodily life and the sacred presence that flows within us and between us. As I read articles about the growth of artificial intelligence, I fear more and more the loss of awareness of the reality of mortality and the sacredness of all embodied life.

I suggest we maintain rituals that instill awareness of mortality and the preciousness of all beings. Being part of a hevra kaddisha is one powerful way to encourage a focus in this way. Other ways include practices that make us aware of the food we prepare and eat, including how animals that will be slaughtered for food are treated and how the workers who grow and package our food are treated. Spending time contemplating our own mortality is a practice that is promoted by both Jewish and Buddhist teachers. Imagining the process of our bodies breaking down and the loss to people who loves us might sound morbid but may serve to awaken us to express gratitude and wonder for each moment of being alive and the sacred connections we have.

May we each find ways to stay awake to the sacred flow of life that we embody with each breath we take.

Shabbat Shalom.

[1] The Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy (The Schocken Bible, Volume 1) Paperback – Illustrated, February 8, 2000. Translated by Everett Fox. Page 501
Rabbi Steven Altarescu (AJR 2014) served as co-rabbi with his wife Rabbi Laurie Levy (AJR 2015) at the Reform Temple of Putnam Valley from 2014- 2020. He is a Board Certified Chaplain who has worked at Westchester Medical Center and Northern Westchester Hospital. He is developing his meditation practice and studying painting and mixed media art at the Art Students League and chasing after his four young granddaughters.