Saturday, March 16, 2019

The Task Is Great, the Time Is Short

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
[Note: This d'var was originally delivered at Temple Reyim, Newton, MA, on Shabbat Zachor, March 16, 2019 / 9 Adar II, 5779.]

This week we begin to engage deeply with the sacrifices as we read the first parasha in the Book of Leviticus, Vayikra.

What do these sacrifices mean for us today? We certainly are not about to bring a bull to an alter, slaughter it, and sprinkle it’s blood around. At least I know I’m not, and I assume you feel the same way.

And sacrifice? As we think of it? Giving things up is what sacrifice means to us today, self-deprivation. Which - aside from Yom Kippur and other fast days - is not how we tend to think about Judaism.

So what are we to think about the sacrifices?To bring meaning and to make my point, I’d like to begin by considering what sacrifices meant to the ancient Israelites. In Temple times, making sacrifices was a religious rite, usually a joyful one. It was a prayer, of petition or purification, atonement or reverence or thanksgiving. The worshipper brought as large and as choice an offering as possible.

What our squeamish stomachs reject - the slaughter of animals and their preparation for eating - most of us don’t witness. We are generally sheltered from the realities of death, not only of the animals that provide the meat we eat, but also often even of our loved ones. Not so the ancient Israelites. They lived closer to the land than we do today, they were intimately connected to birth and to death.

The meaning of the Hebrew, as opposed to the English - can provide insight for us. The word for sacrifices, Korbanot, comes from the root Qof-Resh-Bet, which means "to draw near," and indicates the primary purpose of offerings: to draw the individual or group near to G!d.

There are three basic concepts underlying Karbanot

The first is the aspect of giving. A korban required giving and giving up something that belonged to the person making the offering. Sacrifices were made from domestic animals, not wild animals (since wild animals do not belong to anyone). Offerings of non-meat food were ordinarily in the form of flour or meal, which require human intervention and time.

A second important concept regarding korbanot is the element of substitution. The idea is that the thing being offered is a substitute for the person making the offering, and the things that are done to the offering are things that should have been done to the person offering. The offering is in some sense "punished" in place of the offerer. Whenever the subject of Karbanot is addressed in the Torah, the name of G!d used is the four-letter name indicating G!d's mercy.

The third important concept is the idea of coming closer. The essence of sacrifice is to bring a person closer to G!d.

Given all of that, the question nevertheless remains, what are we to think about all of the sacrifices that are offered up in the Torah. How can we make meaning out of them in today’s world?

I am going to offer a suggestion. But first, let me describe the five different kinds of sacrifices described in our parashah.

The first is the olah, a voluntary sacrifice.
If his offering is olah korbano, a burnt offering from the herd, he shall make his offering a male without blemish. He shall bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, for acceptance in his behalf before the LORD. He shall lay his hand upon the head of the burnt offering, that it may be acceptable in his behalf, in expiation for him.
After some details about mammal innards, we are then told:
the priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD.
This sacrifice, which expiates the giver of guilt, is totally burned on the altar. None of it was eaten, although the hide was preserved and given to the priests.

The root of olah, Ayin-Lamed-Heh, means “to go up”, or “ascend”, as in having an aliyah, going up to the bimah for the blessing for reading the Torah, and la’alot l’yisrael, to make aliyah and move to Israel. The olah is the oldest form of sacrifice, and was the most common. It represented submission to G!d's will. Think about it. Something precious to you, that could sustain you during times of want, and you completely burn it on an altar, giving it in its entirety to G!d. This profound gift of an entire animal to G!d was an expression of complete submission to G!d's will, and of a desire to commune with G!d. In the process, that complete submission expiated one’s sins - consider, how could you commune with G!d if you were experiencing the guilt of sin? And it makes sense that this was a voluntary offering. If you are giving up something dear to you to come closer to G!d and express your complete submission to the Divine will, that spiritual journey is not something that someone can force you to take.

The second kind of sacrifice described in our parasha is the mincha, or meal offering, from prepared grain. It was a voluntary offering of those fruits that were not natural, but required human work to prepare them. The word mincha literally means “gift,” and a sacrifice of flour was a gift to G!d, given freely, and served the purpose of drawing people closer to the Holy One. 
When a person presents an offering of meal to the LORD, his offering shall be of choice flour; he shall pour oil upon it, lay frankincense on it, and present it to Aaron’s sons, the priests. The priest shall scoop out of it a handful of its choice flour and oil, as well as all of its frankincense; and this token portion he shall turn into smoke on the altar, as an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the LORD. And the remainder of the meal offering shall be for Aaron and his sons, a most holy portion from the LORD’s offerings by fire.
The third type of sacrifice described in our parasha is called zevach shlemim. 
If his offering is l’zevach shemim, a sacrifice of well-being—  he shall bring before the LORD [an animal] without blemish....He shall present from the sacrifice of well-being, as an offering by fire to the LORD, the fat that covers the entrails and all the fat that is about the entrails; the two kidneys and the fat that is on them....Aaron’s sons shall turn these into smoke on the altar, with the burnt offering which is upon the wood that is on the fire, as an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the LORD. 
Zevach means “to slaughter,” and can be used as a general term to refer to sacrifices. Zevah shleamim is often translated as a “peace offering,” which makes sense due to the root Shin-Lamed-Mem, the same as the word shalom. But zevach shleamim isn’t intended as a peace offering in the way we think of it, as a way to appease someone who has offended us. It is better translated as a “sacrifice of well-being,” connecting to the meaning of the root of “wholeness, happiness, and health,” as when we ask, ma slomech or slomcha -  how are you? This offering was distinguished by the festive meal eaten by the person brining the sacrifice and his guests, after part of it was offered on the altar and another part given to the priests. It could be an offering of thanksgiving (todah) or in fulfillment of a vow, or simply as a free-will offering. In other words, we cannot achieve a full sense of wellbeing if we don’t say thank you, if we don’t follow through on our commitments, and if we don’t sometimes just say to G!d, I remember You are in my life, which is so amazing.

The fourth type of sacrifice is the chatat, the sin offering, which could be brought by an individual or for the whole community.
Speak to the Israelite people thus: When a person unwittingly incurs guilt in regard to any of the LORD’s commandments about things not to be done, and does one of them—....he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to the LORD.
If it is the whole community of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes the notice of the congregation, so that they do any of the things which by the LORD’s commandments ought not to be done, and they realize their guilt—when the sin through which they incurred guilt becomes known, the congregation shall offer a bull of the herd as a sin offering, and bring it before the Tent of Meeting.
The first three kinds of offerings were voluntary, but a chatat was obligatory, an offering to atone for and purge a sin. It was an expression of sorrow for the error and a desire to be reconciled with G!d. The root Chet-Tet-Alef means “to miss the mark” or to sin. The chatat was offered mainly for unintentional sins committed inadvertantly, through carelessness, not for intentional, malicious sins. In other words, just as you can’t rob a bank the day before Yom Kippur and expect to atone for it the next day, you couldn’t deliberately do a wrong and then take care of it by bringing a chatat sacrifice.

Communal chatat offerings represented the interdependence of the community, the fact that we are all responsible for each others' sins. A few special chatatot could not be eaten, but for the most part, for the average person's personal sin, the chatat was eaten by the priests, which was an important part of achieving atonement.

The fifth kind of sacrifice was the asham, or guilt offering, was also obligatory. A guilt offering was to atone for sins of misappropriating property. The person had to restore what was taken, plus a 20% indemnity, and by brining an asham offering to the Temple. Once these were completed, the person was fully restored to divine favor.

Some sins for which one brought an asham were deliberate, but not all. It was brought when you were not sure whether you had committed a sin or what sin you had committed, or for breach of trust. For example:
If a person incurs guilt— When he has heard 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;
Or when a person utters an oath to bad or good purpose—whatever a man may utter in an oath—and, though he has known it, the fact has escaped him, but later he realizes his guilt in any of these matters—when he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, he shall confess that wherein he has sinned.
And he shall bring as his penalty to the LORD, for the sin of which he is guilty, a female from the flock, sheep or goat, as a sin offering; and the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for his sin.
That is the asham offering.

To my mind, all of this speaks directly to climate change. For all of us. Here’s how I see it, and how I invite you to absorb it.

I begin with the chatat - the obligatory offering in response to unintentional sins.

We did not mean to fry our planet. None of us intended that, or meant to do that, and yet we did, and we do. Every day we keep on doing it. We heat our homes with fossil fuels, we drive our cars with fossil fuels, we charge our electronic devices with fossil fuels, we cook our food with fossil fuels, and so much more.

We didn’t mean to destroy life as we know it on this planet, but we are doing so. We need to make a sin-offering. What might such an offering in response to our inadvertent role in making climate change -- one we are REQUIRED to give -- look like? 

In order for our sin- offering to have any meaning, we need to stop doing what we are doing. Many of us are the ones who can afford heat pumps on our homes and in our shuls. We are the ones who can afford electric cars and solar panels and better insulation. Many of us are the ones with money in the banks and in the stock market, and we need to make sure that those funds are 100% fossil fuel free. We may have the physical strength to ride a bicycle or walk instead of driving, or we could ride the T or a bus. We can take a train or a bus instead of an airplane. These could be our chata’ot.

We have the wisdom and the time and the ability to check out for whom we vote, if they have received funding from fossil fuel companies and where they stand on climate change. We are the ones who can write to our state and local reps and tell them to work toward meaningful environmental and environmental justice laws that will make our state a leader in the nation.

There is more, of course, but these are a start for how we can atone for our unintentional sins.

Next let’s consider the asham, the guilt offering in response misappropriation of property, another obligatory offering.

Misappropriation of property? Yes. Think about it. Think about children being born now. Will they breathe the clean air our parents breathed? Will they have the seaside residences, the beaches, the snowy mountains, that we have enjoyed? Will a home beside a river be available to them? Will their houses be safe from wildfires?  Will the woods behind our homes still be there? No, they will not! And if they are poor or people of color, they will lose this and more before any of the rest of us even notice that the sun has risen. They are already losing, and they will lose more and they will continue to lose it first. We have misappropriated the future. We have misappropriated so many beautiful gifts that this amazing planet had on it when our grandparents were born, that are now gone for good. We have stolen not only from our children, but also from G!d.

What might a guilt offering -- an asham -- in response to our misappropriation of property that has led to climate change look like? 

Think about this verse: If a person incurs guilt— When he has heard 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;

We KNOW about climate change. We KNOW about environmental injustice. We are all guilty here. We are not shouting about these out from the mountaintops. We are not talking about them at family dinners. We are not writing enough letters and emails to our local, state, and national representatives. We are buying and buying and buying, oblivious to the public imprecation we have heard. We need to start talking about climate change and climate injustice, morning, noon, and night. We need to sign the Jewish Environmental Voter Pledge and do SOMETHING to let our reps know that this is super important to us. And we need to give tzedakah - we need to give to all those who are less fortunate and who are already suffering the impacts of climate change, both our neighbors and those on the other side of the world.

All of these, the obligatory offerings, are the hard driving things we need to do. But we also need to consider the voluntary offerings, we need to be gentle with ourselves, and to work hard to come closer to G!d. We need to make free-will mincha offerings -- gifts to G!d. We need to break bread with friends, to walk in the woods, to experience with awe the natural world, to sing, to weep, to give the gifts of our hearts, those gifts that do more for the giver than the receiver. We need to pray and to study and to draw and to dance. We need to share our hearts and our souls. 

We need at times to celebrate as well, to voluntarily give our zevach shleimim, our well-being offerings, and have a feast. When we are ready to say “thank you” for what we have received, when we have fulfilled our commitments to make changes in our lives to live better for the planet, and sometimes just because we feel moved, we need to delight in locally grown foods, in our gardens, in plant based foods we didn’t even know were so delicious. We need to invite our friends and neighbors together and share the bounty we are privileged enough to have access to. We need to do the things that bring us a sense of well-being, and in the process bring ourselves closer to G!d.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, we need to remember the olah, the critical voluntary offering that is about fully giving ourselves to G!d, submitting our will to the Divine will. What is G!d calling you to do to protect the planet for future generations? What would it mean for you to fully submit to G!d in order to help protect the world and its inhabitants that the Holy One created? To end environmental injustice? 

I cannot answer this question for you. I cannot insist that you do it. It must be, after all, a voluntary, free-will offering. I can only tell you that now more than ever, G!d needs us to do this work here in the earthly realm. I can only tell you that this is work we absolutely MUST do, each and every one of us. There is no planet B.

The Jewish Climate Action Network is immensely grateful to Temple Reyim for opening your space to us for the Second Jewish Climate Change Conference: The Time Is Short, the Task Is Great. This is an important communal offering you are making. 

Why might you come on March 24? You might come to learn what your options are, to figure out how to make each of your kinds of offerings. You might come to discover that you are not alone in your concern. You might come to sing and to schmoose, to learn Jewish truths and secular truths, and, you might come in order to feast with your friends and your neighbors in a locally grown, plant based extravaganza of a meal at the end of the conference. You might come to bring your teen or b’nai mitzvah student, letting them know you care about their future.

If you haven’t already, please register for the conference. For every five people from Temple Reyim who register, one gets in free. Bring your teens for the special teen workshop. And sign up for dinner this weekend, as the deadline for that is Monday. You won’t regret taking the day to begin or to renew your process of making offerings to G!d with the goal of preserving our planet.

Thank you very much. Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Katy Allen is the founder and rabbi of Ma'yan Tikvah - A Wellspring of Hope, which holds services outdoors all year long, and the co-founder and President pro-tem of the Boston-based Jewish Climate Action Network. She is a board certified chaplain and serves as an Eco-Chaplain and the Facilitator of One Earth Collaborative, a program of Open Spirit, and is a former hospital and hospice chaplain. She received her ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, NY in 2005 and lives in Wayland, MA, with her spouse, Gabi Mezger, who leads the singing at Ma'yan Tikvah.

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