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.

Mmm . . . Torah – Parshat Vayikra 5776

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I have an addiction to the Food Network. I could spend hours watching other people prepare food, talk about food, and even eat food, but I never end up watching for long stretches of time because it always makes me too hungry. How I wish I could taste or simply just smell the delicious foods being prepared. Whether it’s Bobby Flay barbecuing, the Chopped competitors creating their fast-paced masterpieces, or the sugary sweets of Cupcake Wars, it all looks so good I wish the programming was scratch and sniff.

Reading the Torah there some instances when I wish I was able to be present in that exact moment being described. The book of Vayikra has several of those moments for me. This week as we read parshat Vayikra, we begin the third book of the Torah, which details the many sacrifices and the 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.

It may sound strange to say that hearing about these laws makes me hungry, but virtually all of the sacrifices have to do with food or food stuffs over a hot fire. It reads like a barbecue recipe, with fragrant smells abounding.

Interestingly, the Torah describes each burnt offering as “a gift of pleasing odor to the Lord.” That is to say that the smell of the sacrifices is something that God could take in. Anything wrong with this picture? Well, the rabbis certainly had a problem with this notion. After all we are told not to create “images of God” and that God is not in human form, and yet here we are, reading about a God with a nose. This might lead to an incorrect understanding that we are offering sacrifices not to God but to some other anthropomorphic “God,” which violates the Torah.

To reconcile this controversial thought, Rashi, the great medieval commentator, suggests that what is pleasing to God is not the aroma, but the fact that Israel is doing God’s will. In other words, it’s not the physical odor of the sacrifice, but the physical act of the sacrifice that matters to God.

God’s version of the “smell-o-vision” that I so unashamedly desire is the vision of his creations doing good in the world. Parshat Vayikra teaches that the ephemeral proof (the “odor” if you will) of our good deeds is only one aspect of mitzvot, and probably the least important one at that. It is the long-term and long-lasting results we’re after. Those are the results that matter to God and the ones that should matter to us.

Now if you’ll please excuse me, this talk of food is making me hungry.