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Friday Night Sermon (3/27/2020): "Sacrifices in the Modern Era"

This week’s portion starts the new book of Vayikra/Leviticus. This book contains about half of the 613 Commandments. We start this book of the Levites and Kohanim discussing four sacrifices.

The first two sacrifices are voluntary offerings that address both feeling that we could do better and thanksgiving for the wonderful things in our lives thanks to Hashem. The first is the “Olah” or burnt offering that is burnt completely and goes up in smoke. The next one is the “Shelamin” or peace offering in which only certain parts of the animal are burnt while the rest is eaten. The next two are sin offerings. They are meant to repent committing any transgressions out of ignorance.

Many may feel that this pertains to a part of our culture and heritage that is long gone, perhaps never to return. Since G-d proclaimed that there be no private altars among we Israelites (Jews) and sacrifices are only to be done in the Temple, and the Temple does not at the present time stand, these laws and commandments are archaic. They are best just viewed as part of our history and left there.

Consider that the idea of sacrifices, however, still has relevance for today’s Jews. We are commanded to do tzedakah or justice. This is the word we use for charity and doing mitzvot. Sacrifice is to give something up, and in this context, for a greater good. Ultimately, it is about service.

In these trying times of a pandemic, tzedakah is more relevant and timely, and necessary than ever. We hear about people going out of their way to help their neighbors, either sharing necessities or doing shopping for those who are compromised. People are also doing what they need to do to keep themselves and others safe by practicing controls.

One of the concepts discussed in this portion is the idea of the head priest also making atonement when necessary. Our leaders are not above the law but rather expected to set an example. Before the Cohen Gadol officiates for the Congregation of Israel during Yom Kippur, he has to make his own personal expiation. This is still relevant today in the form of the “Heneini” prayer. Right before the start of the Mussaf or Additional service, the hazzan acknowledges their own shortcomings and inadequacies and asks G-d not to let this prohibit them from beseeching on behalf of the congregation.

We are all familiar with the strife and toxic bipartisanship infecting our government on all levels. For the last 25 years or so, it’s been anything but politics as usual. Things in Washington, DC just haven’t been getting done.

We see now during this pandemic crisis that these same leaders in bitter rivalry are coming together to solve this crisis and save lives. While it’s not perfect, we are seeing that our leaders are stepping up to the plate and being the leaders we all want and expect. These people are putting aside their contempt for each and put their constituents first.

It is unfortunate that it has taken a crisis of these proportions to bring our leaders back to reality, but at least they are rising to the challenge. In fact, isn’t it interesting that when there’s a crisis is when we all realize our highest and most sincere potential and become altruistic? Many people, in times of crisis, see a strength inside themselves they didn’t know they had.

Why do we need a crisis? During the Middle Ages when Jews were prohibited from practicing, they did so in secret under penalty of death. During Purim, they would gather together in darkened rooms to read the Magilla. Instead of sounding loud groggers that would alert the King’s men, they would write the name “Haman” on the soles of theirs shoes and erase it. Now that there’s no danger, no one shows up for services.

The idea of the sacrifice is meant to keep that in our minds all of the time. Sacrifices taught us that our good fortune, and yes, bad fortune too, comes from one place, Hashem. It is G-d that allows us how much bounty we have, and we are obligated by Torah to give back.

Unfortunately, this crisis has brought out some very unfortunate responses as well. We have had business and political leaders say in the media that they want to curtail the safety measures adopted by both health care professionals and most local government leaders in favor of improving the economy. Their callous recommendations put lives at stake for the sake of returning to economic expansion.

Nothing can be more contrary to Torah than favoring commerce over human lives. The Torah specifically states, “You shall live by the Torah”. This led our sages to conclude that human life is so important and takes precedence over complying with our commandments. Remember that one of the main messages when an angel stayed Abraham’s hand in killing Isaac on the alter is that human sacrifice is absolutely forbidden. That goes both for pagan gods and business gods.

Certainly, managing this crisis is going to necessitate taking austere measures to ensure safety and it’s possible that it will take longer to recover economically. But G-d created humans with frontal lobes so we can engage in creative thinking. Surely, we can use that “seichal” to find solutions that resolve both our human and economic health in optimal ways.

Perhaps when this crisis is over—and it will be over—we need to see the lesson. We must not give up lofty ideals and actions and return to our baser emotions. Let us live each as if there were a crisis and practice being the evolved humans that G-d expects us to be.

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