March 16th: Vayikra
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
A great resource for studying the weekly Torah portion is “Ten Minutes of Torah,” a feature sent out every Monday by the Union for Reform Judaism. This e-mail includes a Torah commentary and an alternative view of the portion. The writers are usually Reform rabbis or professors at the Hebrew Union College, and they always combine traditional and modern insights as we search our sacred texts for meaning. (Available at ReformJudaism.org)
This week, as we start Leviticus, the main commentary is written by Rabbi David Lyon of Houston, Texas, and the alternative view (Davar Acher) is written by Rabbi Paul Cohen of Northfield, Illinois.
Given that the Book of Leviticus instructs the ancient Israelites—and their kohanim /priests—on the rituals that God requires, Rabbi Lyon focuses on the meaning of the Hebrew word, korban, which is usually translated as sacrifice. What did it mean for the ancients to bring sacrifices? “To begin, in Near Eastern cultures of the time, sacrifices on altars were brought to feed gods that were represented by statues of deities. People brought them animals, grains, and oils, among other gifts. In contrast, we learn in Torah that animal and grain sacrifices were brought by Israelites to create a link between the One God, God’s people, and the world. The priests facilitated the process, for which they were compensated; but, it was the presentation of the sacrifices by the Israelites themselves to the priests that was the most precious gift because their personal sacrifices drew them closer to God. The Hebrew root of the word, korban, means “to draw near” or “to draw close.” Unlike the English translation, “sacrifice,” which suggests losing something in the act of offering, a korban enabled the Israelites to draw nearer to God’s justice and mercy.” The rest of his message deals with the quality of our motivations when approaching God. Do we approach with our best intentions, or do we shortchange our relationship with the Divine?
Rabbi Cohen focuses his alternative view on the remedial nature of the ancient sacrifices—how many of the rituals involved restoring ritual purity or atoning for sin—and reminds us of one of the Torah’s most important life lessons: if it can be broken, it can be fixed. He writes: “So much of this book and in particular, this Torah portion…speaks to the fact that we will commit transgressions. Some will be by mistake and some will be intentional. Regardless, the Torah clearly teaches that we have the opportunity and the responsibility to repair the damage we have done and to seek forgiveness. Forgiveness and repair are always available to us. What a powerful lesson to teach our children. You do not have to be defined by your mistakes. You can fix what you have broken.
A story is told about the Musar master, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. One night he walked past the home of an old shoemaker, and noticed that despite the late hour, the man was still working by the light of a dying candle. "Why are you still working?" he asked. "It is very late and soon that candle will go out." The shoemaker replied, "As long as the candle is still burning, there is time to make repairs." Rabbi Salanter spent that entire night repeating to himself: "As long as the candle is still burning, there is time to make repairs." The Book of Proverbs teaches that a person’s soul is the lamp [candle] of God (Proverbs 20:27). From the simple shoemaker, Rabbi Salanter took the message never to give up on the idea that we can repair that which is broken. As long as the candle is burning you can still make repairs. As long as there is life, there is still time to make spiritual repairs as well. We can set right all the things that are wrong.”
I appreciate Rabbi Cohen’s teaching, and I think that it is very important these days—when there is so much wrong-doing. Wrongs should not be done, but they often are, and we are left with the question of responding to less than godly behavior. It clearly needs to be identified and decried, and the victims need to be heard and comforted. And, the perpetrators need to stop their evil deeds. But, can they/we ever be forgiven? Can they/we ever fix things?
I think it is a mistake to think in terms of removing the pain and making things as good as new. For many misdeeds, pain, trauma, and a sense of vulnerability persist. Things cannot be made perfect again. And yet, one hopes for a way to continue living and finding meaning in life. And, one hopes for a way for evildoers to repent. How does a sinner turn from his/her evil ways, do teshuvah/repentance, and return to God and godliness? It is an essential teaching of our religion—though it may take our best thinking to figure out exactly what real repentance may involve.
Consider this Midrash, found in the Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 10.2 and in Midrash Rabba on Ruth, 5.6. It deals with the most evil king of Israel, Manasseh, an idolater who persecuted the Prophet Isaiah and committed every kind of evil. Eventually, he was captured by the Assyrians and tortured. “They placed him in a device made of copper. (2 Chronicles 33.11) A copper caldron with many holes in it was devised for the torture of Manasseh. After he was put into the caldron, a slow fire was started under it. When Manasseh saw that his peril was indeed great, there was no idol anywhere in the world that he failed to call upon by name: O idol So-and-so, and O idol Such-and-such, come and deliver me! When he perceived that his appeal availed him nothing at all, he said: I remember that my father had read me a particular verse, “In thy distress, when all these things come upon thee…return to the Lord thy God.” (Deuteronomy 4.30) All right then, I will call upon my father’s God; if He answers me, well and good, but if not, then all deities are alike—equally worthless. At this point, the ministering angels began shutting heaven’s windows so that Manasseh’s prayer would not come up before Him who is everywhere. They put the question to Him: Master of the Universe, a man who set up an idol in the Temple—can you possibly accept the repentance of such a man? The Holy One replied: If I do not receive him in his repentance, I shall be barring the door to all those who would repent. What did the Holy One do for Manasseh? He made an opening under His very throne of glory—so the angels could not interfere with it—and listened to Manasseh’s supplication. Hence it is written, “And he prayed unto Him, and He was entreated of him.” (2 Chronicles 33.13)
The gates of repentance are always open. What must we do to enter them?