Drawing Close by Staying Apart

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Young man and woman looking at each other from distance
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By Rabbi George Stern

Parshat Vayikra

For many Jews, Leviticus is the most difficult book of the Torah to wrap their heads around. The first several parshot, starting this week with parshat Vayikra, recount in great detail the sacrificial system God ordained for ancient Israel.

Whatever its significance then, the notion that we must offer animals and grains to God is wholly alien to us. In fact, after I agreed to write this d’var Torah, I said to myself, “Are you crazy?”

Whatever the answer to that question, there are in fact aspects of this parsha and those that follow that jump out as having relevance as we try to come to grips with COVID-19.

When traditional Jews begin their Torah studies, they start not with Genesis but rather with Leviticus. I can’t even imagine trying to get 6-year-olds to tackle these texts, but for centuries they have. Why?

One possible explanation is to teach that, just as Jews used to offer to God part of their wealth in sacrifices, so too must Jews today make sacrifices, such as giving priority to prayer at set times even when it’s not convenient; maintaining kosher homes, supporting synagogues and sending kids to day schools despite the expense; and offering ourselves and our resources to our families, other Jews and the people around us and throughout the world.

The word for sacrifices, korbanot, is from a root meaning “draw near.” Korbanot were a response to a Divine command, by which the Israelites demonstrated fealty to the One to whom they had covenanted themselves at Sinai, and consequently drew closer to God.

To be sure, it’s jarring to think about “drawing near” at a time when we are told to exercise social distancing (or, as I prefer to say, physical distancing, since we are in fact doing all that we can to maintain and even grow social ties). Here’s a way to think about it:

The prophet Isaiah, responding to fraught political situations and ultimately the destruction of the temple in which sacrifices could be offered, showed how successful korbanot required ethical behavior. In a pathos-filled plea he said, “Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? … Do you call that a fast, a day when the Eternal One is favorable? No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and take the wretched poor into your home … and not ignore your own kin. Then shall your light burst through like the dawn and your healing spring up quickly.” (58:5-8)

“Drawing near” to God requires us to show care and compassion for one another, especially the most vulnerable among us. Sometimes that can mean staying physically apart while still giving needed assistance.

While for most of us these days, drawing close ironically requires separation, many Americans are sacrificially drawing near and putting themselves in mortal danger: the people standing behind the president at press conferences and telling us the truth, the medical professionals and first responders fighting the virus despite the lack of supplies, the workers at our groceries and pharmacies, the sanitation workers, the journalists who tirelessly keep us informed, and the women and men going in to work to make the millions of items needed to keep those on the front lines safe.

I am in awe of all of them.

Leviticus also demonstrates the value of ritual. Knowing that offering sacrifices assured God’s nearness certainly comforted the Israelites. Like them, we appreciate the stability and comfort that ritual can bring, most especially at a time like this.

We owe a shout-out to the rabbis and cantors who have learned how to use Zoom and bring worship experiences into our homes. We owe the same to everyone who has stepped forward to create virtual opportunities for us to keep in touch with one another, including the educators who have ramped up skills so they can draw near to their students virtually (even as I decry that underfunding makes it impossible for our largest school districts, where the need is greatest, to do so).

Maintaining closeness with each other is surely a way to maintain connection with God.

Finally, a central theme of Leviticus is “purity.” To our ancestors, that meant carefully distinguishing between cleanliness and uncleanliness in all aspects of life — including how we worshipped, what we could and couldn’t eat and what sexual relations were permitted.

While biblical notions of purity led ultimately to divisions that some of us would reject today, I hope that everyone who can will take to heart the new purity mitzvah: “to draw near, stay apart.” Be well! l

Rabbi George Stern is a retired Reform congregational rabbi and nonprofit executive director and a member of both Germantown Jewish Centre and Congregation Rodeph Shalom. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.

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