Becoming Whole – Parshat Vayikra 5781

Believe it or not, I sat down to write this d’var Torah a year ago. I like to at least have drafts done far in advance so that I can pivot and adjust if needed. As I sat here to write, I remember in detail receiving the startling information of a tragic loss in our community that would have ripple effects for years to come. I rushed out of the office (the office was still open at that point) to hold the family and take care of logistics and other pieces before returning to finish this drash. But it was clear to me what I needed to write about. I came back and sat down five days later to try in some way to “become whole” through the writing and my writing process.

This week as we begin Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, we find ourselves immersed in the listing of mitzvot (commandments) on how to live our lives. This begins with the explanation of the sacrifices that we are to give daily, weekly, and yearly. We learn that there can be a sacrifice made in times of joy and in times of sorrow. There is a special sacrifice for being guilty of a sin and others for complete thanksgiving. As Sefer Vayikra continues, we learn about the laws of how to treat one another, how to engage in holy relationships, and how our calendar and meals should reflect our innermost values and desires.

One of the offerings we are asked to give is the zevah shlamim. This offering is brought by someone who has had something to celebrate. It is almost always an individual offering, never communal, because gratitude is personal and individual. Further, the word shlamim comes from the same root as shalom, which can mean “to be whole.” The offering is made with a sense of being at peace. The Torah teaches us that this offering must be eaten on the day that it is brought or the next day at the latest. Perhaps this is to encourage those with gratitude to invite others to join their celebration, because typically joy increases when we come together. 

On that fateful afternoon when I was writing this drash I received a call. Vayikra. And that call brought a community together to hold the broken pieces and find a way towards wholeness and towards peace. The Torah is not suggesting that all communal moments must be joyful, and needless to say this moment was not. Instead, our sacred text is meant to give us, on the one hand, guidelines for holding those moments of joy and gratitude and, on the other hand, guidelines for holding each other in grief and sorrow. As we pass another year anniversary, the anniversary of when COVID-19 changed all our lives, it’s yet another reminder that we are still holding broken pieces, and there’s much work left to be done to make ourselves whole again.

Open Gates, Open Mind – Parshat Vayikra 5780

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I tend to be pretty hard on myself after a mistake or misstep. When I do something or say something that I later regret, especially when it might make someone else uncomfortable or hurt them, I hold on to that pain and regret almost like a security blanket. I tend to beat myself up for days and weeks afterward, thinking about how I could have done better, worked differently, or simply made a better choice. Worse is when I realize my wrongdoing, then apologize, but the person isn’t ready to forgive or even engage in that conversation yet. That leads to my own frustration that I just didn’t avoid the situation in the first place. I’m a people pleaser after all, and because of that, my ideal is creating community and connection with everyone I encounter.

While the first step – recognizing the wrongdoing – might be easy for me, it certainly isn’t the only step necessary on the path to forgiveness. This week we read from Parshat Vayikra, the first section of the third book of the Torah. This begins with the explanation of the sacrifices that we are to give daily, weekly, and yearly. We learn that there can be a sacrifice made in times of joy and in times of sorrow. There is a special sacrifice for being guilty of a sin and others for complete thanksgiving. As Sefer Vayikra continues, we learn about the laws of how to treat one another, how to engage in holy relationships, and how our calendar and meals should reflect our innermost values and desires.

The end of this week’s portion deals with the ways in which we might ask for forgiveness or make strides in righting the wrongs we have committed. Chapter 5, verse 26 ends on this positive, simple note: “He shall be forgiven.” This statement follows an explanation of the actions that might be used to make reparation for our misdeeds. Ultimately, if we partake in the prescribed action and ask for forgiveness, then we are forgiven. 

A Hasidic master taught, “The gates of repentance open for anyone who does wrong and then realizes it and seeks to make amends.” In other words, the road to forgiveness must begin with the desire to get there. I can beat myself up all I want about my misdeeds, but unless I have a willingness and desire to change, those gates remain locked. 

As we read Parshat Vayikra, especially at a time when our community simply is not physically able to come together in person to apologize, to forgive, and to move on, we are reminded that each of us holds the key to our own journey to forgiveness. And perhaps an added benefit of this period of isolation is merely the time to look inward and finally use that key. Shabbat shalom.

From “To Do” to “Done” – Parshat Vayikra 5779

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As many of you know, I spent the first half of this week in Washington D.C., where I met with representatives and agencies to advocate on behalf of human rights efforts in Guatemala. This was the culmination of the American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellowship for rabbis. Prior to the Guatemala trip itself, I spent six months learning about the work that AJWS does globally to promote rights-based advocacy and global justice. Then I spent seven days in Guatemala hearing firsthand accounts of the corruption in government, the difficulty of making a living, and the triumph of human beings who fight daily for their dignity.

As life-changing as the experience has been, this was not an easy trip for me to commit to. When I was considering the trip, my list of drawbacks was long. I was hesitant to leave my family for a week with little communication. I was still nursing my son and didn’t want to break that connection. It wasn’t fair to my community for me to take time away. The expense would take funds from other efforts. The list goes on. Apparently I’m really good at coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t do something. My list of why I should attend was simple: I have a moral imperative as a human being to offer help when I’m able. I should find a way and the time to make this happen.

Even once I committed, the concerns remained (and changed). For months ahead of time, I sat in anxiety about the trip. Was I prepared? Was I the right person to do this? How would I be without my daily snuggles from my babies? Should I even go?

I drew strength, as I often do, from my core text, the Torah. This week we read Parshat Vayikra, and we begin the third book of the Torah, which details the many sacrifices and daily, active mitzvot of living as an Israelite. This begins with the explanation of the sacrifices that we are to give daily, weekly, and yearly. We learn that there can be a sacrifice made in times of joy and in times of sorrow. There is a special sacrifice for being guilty of a sin and others for complete thanksgiving. As Sefer Vayikra continues, we learn about the laws of how to treat one another, how to engage in holy relationships, and how our calendar and meals should reflect our innermost values and desires.

As the types of sacrifices are listed, we learn about the “guilt offerings” in chapter 5: “If a person incurs guilt – when he has had a public imprecation and – although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter – he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment.” Basically, we are responsible not only for the things we do wrong, but for the things we should have done, but neglected. The Talmud in Tractate Bava Kama calls this “innocent before a human court but liable in the sight of God.”

Ultimately, we can all find reasons for why we “can’t” or “shouldn’t” do something that might help others, especially if it’s an inconvenience to our daily lives or a big step forward; however, our Torah reminds us that the call to action is one we cannot ignore. That when we have the ability to make a change in ourselves or the world, we must take that action.

I spent the week in Guatemala missing my family dearly, but I don’t regret it for a second. Taking the action – making this a “done” instead of a “to do” – meant I was witness to both the atrocities of injustice and the persistence of the human spirit, and now I will speak out about how to help others, not because I should, but because I must.

Close Encounters – Parshat Vayikra 5778

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There are times when I feel like I’m floating in a chaotic abyss. These are usually moments when there is so much going on that I don’t have time to sit down, take a breath, and center myself on the work I need or want to do. Or I feel like I haven’t seen my kids for days, and my relationship with Duncan feels like it’s made up entirely of texts and online chat sessions. In a way these times are helpful, because they encourage me to actively devote time to hunker down with the family, snuggle up tight, and share a few special “I love you” moments before heading back out to face the world again. Sometimes it’s the sacrifices we make that actually bring us closer.

The idea of returning to our close communities, our families, and our core selves is essential to maintaining focus, and it’s as old as the Torah. This week we read Parshat Vayikra, the first portion in the third book of the Torah. This book is filled with rules and laws about gifts we should be making to God: gifts of well-being, gifts of thanks, gifts of apology. It also has within its chapters the text known as the Holiness Code, which directs us in how our relationships with others should be created and managed. But the first portion of the book, which we read this week, focuses mostly on the types of offerings we will make to God as both individuals and a community.

The idea of sacrifice seems foreign to us, given that we don’t sacrifice animals these days. However, sacrifice in the Torah is anything but foreign or even negative. The Hebrew root for the word sacrifice is karov, which literally means “to bring close.” A sacrifice is meant to bring us closer, a gift to be given and received. It’s not some kind of bribe. The only purpose it serves is to build a relationship.

Understanding this notion of karov, of coming closer through the giving of ourselves, reminds us that there is a greater purpose to the personal sacrifices we make. In the same way that an animal sacrifice was designed to build a closer relationship with God, a sacrifice of time or money or energy is because of our devotion to those we’re sacrificing for. Something to think about the next time things start to seem a little too chaotic again.

Catch a Whiff – Parshat Vayikra 5777

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Have you ever had the sensation of breezing past a department store perfume counter and suddenly conjuring a vivid memory of a grandparent? Or walking into someone’s home and having the smell of dinner carry you away to your childhood? It is widely accepted scientifically that brain anatomy is responsible for this strong connection between smells and memory. The olfactory bulb, which starts in the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain, is directly connected to two of the brain’s emotion and memory centers: the amygdala and hippocampus.

I don’t need to understand the anatomy to know there are certain scents that just make me happy in an instant. The smell of Olga bread from my favorite restaurant in Detroit can make my mouth water. The smell of good Texas barbecue is enough to make me ravenous no matter how full I am. The smell of the challah on Friday or Havdalah spices on Saturday bring me to a place of instant peace.

Of course it’s not just food. The sweet smell of Shiri’s head as she rests it against me when she cuddles makes my heart melt. I have one particular sweater that belonged to my father; if I hold it close, I’m embraced with the faint smell of his cologne. More than sight, sound, or touch, our sense of smell has a unique way of tying into our taste buds and our memories so that we are instantly moved by the various odors around us.

This week we begin reading the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), the third book in the Torah. This book contains many practical laws to guide our communities as well as the original laws of sacrifice, and it’s filled with rules and laws about gifts we should be making to God: gifts of well-being, gifts of thanks, gifts of apology. It also has within its chapters the text known as the “holiness code,” which directs us in how our relationships with others should be created and managed. But the first portion of the book, which we read this week, focuses mostly on the types of offerings we will make to God as both individuals and as a community.

As God in the Torah starts to outline the different sacrifices that the Israelites are expected to make for various reasons, we begin to see God’s reaction to these sacrifices. Chapter 1, verse 9 evokes “a gift of pleasing odor to the Lord.” We know that it’s our physical makeup that makes smells pleasing to us, but how is this possible for God, with no physical makeup? Does God have the same human reaction that I have? The commentators emphatically reject the notion that God is actually smelling the sacrifices. Instead, what is described as pleasing to God is that the Israelites are doing what is asked of them.

I see a direct parallel to how we interpret memories and behaviors. It’s not the chemicals in the odors, but the feelings associated with them that matter. Traditional sacrifice has long been abandoned in favor of more modern interpretations of how we offer praise to God. It’s not the sacrifice itself, but the intent behind the sacrifice that is “pleasing to the Lord.” Obviously it was because my dad was who he was that the memory is so special; the cologne is simply a reminder of that. These emotional triggers are superficially enjoyable, but it’s up to us to create those memories in the first place.