Odile Hugonot Haber on Parashat Shemini

Odile Hugonot Haber Bat Mitzvah Words, April 11 2015

We are reading in Leviticus now, and it is a good time to have a Bat Mitzvah, a recommitment, because in Hebrew, the book of Leviticus and its first chapter are named Vayikra,–“and the Lord Called.” I read in Avraham Burg’s Torah commentary, Very Near To You “When the time comes for the book of Leviticus, with all its sacrifices and their spattered blood, I raised my spines like a hedgehog…” We do too, so how do we understand these passages today?

Odile roasting chestnuts in old city of  Jerusalem after a snowstorm in 2014

Odile roasting chestnuts in old city of Jerusalem after a snowstorm, 2014

The Hebrews came out to the desert led by Moses and Aaron, liberated from slavery, from alienated labor and from the whip of Pharaoh, the ruler and employer. They found themselves suddenly in front of the silence–and beauty–of the desert, a simpler life in accordance with the rhythms of nature. Yes, life in the desert can be humbling, very simple, bringing us back to our core. The few sounds in the silence, the plants that grow against the wind, the crackling of the sand, the trails of little animals, all that immensity of sky, earth and cloud. Definitely a new way of life.

The desert can be very intimidating, such a change! It was important to organize that emerging society, give it some structure and community. Rather than leave them in front of each other in distress to fight and divide, it was time to build on their freedom and support a spiritual life that would nourish them and open their minds and hearts. The tribes had to be kept assembled and form a new identity. So the services were created, the priesthood was formed, the people performed, then the laws were given from on high.

But what about the sacrifices of animals, the spilling of blood? How could it possibly mean something to us now? Very few of us are prepared to spill blood, and yet we are living from the continual sacrifices of others. Our nation and its might of military arsenals is continually spilling the blood of some of the poorest people on earth. Many animal species are moving to extinction because humans are gorging ourselves on materialism while the rest of nature is perishing around us.

The second temple has been long destroyed, animal sacrifices have been eradicated, and many of us here are vegetarian. So what are the sacrifices that Adonai wants to get from us at this time? “The building of the temple and the renewal of the sacrificial service are the climax of the Jewish state’s true rebirth and the redemption of the world,” as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook expressed it, “to build the temple and the sacrificial service is the noblest and highest of aspiration.” It certainly beats materialism and shopping. Yet, Isaiah tells us that God does not delight in sacrifices and in rituals. God instead would like us to do the work of Peace and Justice around us.

Two important things take place in this week’s portion, Parashat Shemini: the dedication of the tabernacle and the dietary laws of Kashrut. For instance, there are laws which forbid the eating of carnivores and permit the eating of herbivores. It was an important way to teach human beings to be conscious of what they eat, what they consume.

What are sacrifices today and how can we raise the spirit in our lives, our community? A sacrifice means to offer something that is yours, it is a gift, to surrender to Adonai our possessions. What could we offer, what would be acceptable?

In the Torah there are brunt offerings, guilt offerings, and peace offerings. The Torah tells us also that there is nothing greater than repentance. A turning of heart. We may need to examine our lives and change our lifestyle to support life on earth. Does this mean living simpler lives, sharing what we have? Many of us are doing good things–each of us is doing what we can–yet we are not very aware of what others are doing.

Does it mean driving less, working less, doing more for our community? Being there for our children, for our elders? Does it mean doing things that we might not like to do? Some of us relate to the homeless people, some to the sick, and some to the imprisoned. I do political activism; it is a form of sacrifice, of prayer.

Does it mean also doing more simple things, like taking time for one another? Our lives are so insanely busy and slowing down feels like a crime; but maybe sleeping in our hammock, or staying in or bed, would in fact be far more productive and less destructive. Maybe we are doing too much.

It is hard to pin down what to offer, so we imagine the possibilities of the still possible. I have to go deeper and follow my heart into developing values that support my Peace and Justice work in my own community. But also, in each action I will strive to find the balance that is sustainable and preserve life and humanity.

Odile and Alan

Odile and Alan

These are my queries. I find it hard to find individual solutions. We need to come together collectively and collect the many answers we have. So here we are. What are your thoughts?