On this Shabbat we begin the reading from the book of Leviticus, the third of the five books of the Torah. The reading for and foremost deals with the process of the offerings, how they are done and for what. We at the Reform Movement do not pray for the return of these rituals now or in any time in the future. However, we do find it appropriate to study these laws as part of a rich Jewish heritage, to understand how it developed over many generations, and what our conclusions are therefrom.
The Haftarah for this week is taken from the words of the prophet Isaiah, who picturesquely describes the human nature is the following way, “Another shapes wood, he extends a measuring line; he outlines it with red chalk. He works it with planes and outlines it with a compass, and makes it like the form of a man, like the beauty of man, so that it may sit in a house. Surely he cuts cedars for himself, and takes a cypress or an oak and raises it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a fir, and the rain makes it grow. Then it becomes something for a man to burn, so he takes one of them and warms himself; he also makes a fire to bake bread. He also makes a god and worships it; he makes it a graven image and falls down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he eats meat as he roasts a roast and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Aha! I am warm, I have seen the fire.’ But the rest of it he makes into a god, his graven image. He falls down before it and worships; he also prays to it and says, ‘Deliver me, for you are my god.’”
It starts well and describes a person who takes control of the wood around him and has the knowledge to form it so a house may be erect. He plants trees and then uses them to generate the necessary heat and cook foods. However, something goes wrong in the thinking process and he suddenly believes that he can create out of that wood something that is greater than the human, and he then begins to pray to it. The wood that was supposed to serve him had transformed to become the material out of which a god is created. Isaiah sums this up, “They do not know, nor do they understand, for He has smeared over their eyes so that they cannot see and their hearts so that they cannot comprehend. No one recalls, nor is there knowledge or understanding to say, ‘I have burned half of it in the fire and also have baked bread over its coals. I roast meat and eat it. Then I make the rest of it into an abomination, I fall down before a block of wood!’”
The prophet tries in his words to communicate that there is no point in making these kinds of empty offerings when there is no understanding of why they were there in the first place. It is not the will of God to receive offerings for the purpose of repent but rather so that there will be no need for these offerings in the first place. “Speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘If a person sins unintentionally in any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and commits any of them, if the anointed priest sins so as to bring guilt on the people, then let him offer to the Lord a bull without defect as a sin offering for the sin he has committed… Now if the whole congregation of Israel commits error and the matter escapes the notice of the assembly, and they commit any of the things which the Lord has commanded not to be done, and they become guilty; when the sin which they have committed becomes known, then the assembly shall offer a bull of the herd for a sin offering and bring it before the tent of meeting.’”
It seems that a week like the one we have experienced would have happened in those biblical days, the altar would have been used in overtime. We have seen and experienced so many sins from those who are supposed to be at our service and focused on our best interests. Rather than that we saw picky, miserly and stubborn politics. Politics that instead of feverishly attempting to reduce rifts and splits, forwarded them. When an important figurehead does not obey a judicial order what shall a citizen say?! How can we condemn that citizen who then does not obey orders of a partial curfew?! And what about those who promise and withdraw? The sins that we spoke about are those that have been committed in error – are nowadays sins the same?
Politics has, so I guess, its own answers for all of this. Nevertheless it is important to understand that politics in itself is not inherently evil. In the right hands it can bring salvation, compromises and understandings that can forward our case while meticulously maintain its core values: Jewish and Democratic said in unison. During these days where we have to keep our social distance I do hope we can also devote time to think how we can get closer together. Not necessarily physically but fore and foremost as a society.
Shabbat Shalom and wishes for good health to all.
Reuven Marko, 27 March 2020, 3 Nisan, 5780