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Parshat Vayikra 5781

March 19, 2021

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

Sacrifices, Disappointment, and Hope
A D’var Torah for Parashat Vayikra
By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (’16)

Good news: I have been vaccinated! Perhaps I should make an offering to God in gratitude. What might that look like?

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Vayikra, details several types of sacrifices that will be brought into the freshly-built Mishkan: the olah, or burnt offering; the shelamim, or peace/wholeness offering; five variations of minha offerings, ways to give meal for those who cannot afford the animals of the other offerings; the hattat, or sin offering, with variations depending on the type of sin and sinner; and lastly the asham, or guilt-offering for trespass specifically against God. While most of these give at least some indication of why a person might bring them, the olah and the minha offerings seem to be “just ‘cuz”. So, in feeling the gratitude of modern science do I offer a free-will olah, or perhaps some minha because my income has certainly been hit this year, simply out of the joy in my heart? Or is it a case for shelamim, an offering in gratitude for well-being and an offering to request wholeness and peace for those still waiting, speedy vaccinations and recoveries for us all?

Of course, these are rhetorical questions because we don’t offer these types of sacrifices anymore. Furthermore, as we inch toward returning to normal, I can’t help but reflect on all the sacrifices already made this past year. Sacrifices of mental health for the sake of physical health and communal well-being. Sacrifices of physical health on the altar of capitalism and individualism. Over a half million dead, millions more infected and left with chronic illness now, small businesses shuttered while corporations flourished, the average person suffering financially while multi-millionaires increased their wealth exponentially. And as with most natural disasters, this virus and its societal effects have hit hardest those already marginalized.

This year could have been an opportunity for so much needed change. In our synagogues, in our communities, in our country, in our world: social, economic, political – all of which are interconnected anyway. We could have taken notice of all the problems highlighted and exacerbated by this pandemic: wealth inequality, a broken healthcare system, a polarized and divisive political scene, the inherent selfishness to rugged individualism, teaching toward standardized tests instead of prioritizing students’ well-being, and so on. To be honest, I’m not sure how I would have approached those changes if I ran the world, but I had so much hope last April that the world coming to a screeching halt would give us the space to address these needs. Instead, I fear that we treaded water for a year, and now we are nearing the end of this traumatic experience and so eager to pretend we’re not traumatized that we will immediately return to precisely how things were before.

I return again to the essence of my initial question: knowing I’m not actually going to make a material sacrifice as a pleasing odor to the Lord, how should I instead show my gratitude at being vaccinated while working toward greater wholeness, peace, and well-being for those around me? I begin by continuing to wear my mask when leaving my home, double-masking if I’m going to be indoors with others, washing/sanitizing my hands frequently, and continuing to hold online programming for my congregation. I continue my volunteer work with grassroots organizations that seek to feed people and distribute masks and hygiene products. I give tzedakah when possible directly through mutual aid networks that ensure the money or materials go directly to the people who need it most. These are all offerings of the heart. Everyone, no matter their own resources, has the ability to give something that expresses their awareness of their own blessings and works toward a fairer world for all. Several of the stipulations in this week’s parasha have to do with differences in wealth, ensuring that everyone gives according to their means. No one is expected to match that which their neighbor can afford, but no one is exempt from offering something. As Rabbi Tarfon would say: “it is not on you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirkei Avot 2:16). There is a reason worship and work share a root word (avodah); in a Judaism without physical sacrifices at the holy Temple, each act of Tikkun Olam is an act of worship, a blessing, and a labor of love. May we work, bless, sacrifice, worship, and love; and may we be blessed and loved through our work and sacrifice.
Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (AJR ’16) is the rabbi of Congregation Ner Shalom, a heimish Reform synagogue in Northern VA, where she lives with her husband and cat.