While I’m normally someone who is easily distracted, lately it’s particularly difficult to stay focused. Whether it’s beginning to grasp the brutalities of war in Europe or the lingering uncertainties of the pandemic, my attention seems to be continually drawn away from what’s in front of me – towards anxieties, towards indulgencies, and towards…Google News (yes, I’m a proud Android user).
I imagine many of us can relate to the experience of getting drawn away. Whether it’s the cravings of our worst habits or perhaps something subtler, the inherent consequence of this magnet-like pull is that we are taken away from being present in the moment.
Fortunately, this week’s Torah portion provides insights and guidance towards the ongoing battle of staying connected to the sacredness of the present moment. Having just completed the sweeping narrative of the Israelites’ liberation from Egypt in the Book of Exodus, we begin Vayikra/Leviticus. In this, the third of the five books of Moses, the text quickly changes from dramatic story-telling to highly descriptive instructions about ancient sacrificial rituals.
Many struggle to find meaning and relevancy in these ancient words and instructions; nonetheless, they contain within them wisdom and guidance for attending to the on-going affliction of distractibility. The descriptions of these sacrificial rituals go into great detail about different types of animal offerings (sin-offering, guilt-offering, etc.), which circumstances warrants a particular species (bull, calf, bird, etc.), and the specific steps of the rituals (washing, slaughter, burning, etc.). The Hebrew word for “offering/sacrifice” is קׇרְבָּ֖ן (korban), which, at its root, is associated with the dynamic of “drawing near.” This gives us a glimpse at why G!D places such an emphasis on the sacrifices and rituals: through them, G!D provides a pathway for the Israelites to draw closer to that which is sacred and Holy. To G!D.
Understated, but ever-present in this relationship, is the desire for both G!D and the Israelites to be more connected, to be closer to one another. There is also the acknowledgement that there are factors that get in the way of this type of intimacy. Looking at these relational dynamics can also inform how we approach the internal struggle we, ourselves, have with getting drawn away towards the less-then-Holy aspects of ourselves and the world.
The following midrash provides some insight into the way G!D approaches the relationship with the Israelites, as well as a better understanding the purpose of the sacrificial rituals:
It (i.e. the instruction about the sacrifices) may be compared to a king’s son who is addicted to carrion and forbidden meats. Said the king: He shall always eat at my table and soon get out of the habit. (Vayikra Rabbah 22:8)
Common in midrash, G!D is frequently compared to a King and the Israelites as princes/princesses. This metaphor wonderfully affirms that we are both children of royalty and imperfect humans, with very real struggles of respecting rules and honoring obligations. The addicted prince – whose spiritual immaturity contributes to desiring unsavory foods – is to be “cured” of his habit not through a severe decree of the King forbidding his son to consume any meat at all, but rather by providing the son with an open invitation to eat at the King’s table at all times. G!D knows about our disobedience and, instead of rejection, compassionately seeks healthier ways for the relationship to persist, even strengthening the bond with us, G!D’s wayward children. In this light, the rituals become one of the meeting places to encounter the Holy.
In the light of our experience of ritual – and especially religious ritual – for many of us, there is a great weight of emotional baggage. However, as our tradition has evolved since the ancient days, it has not just replaced one set of rituals with another, but actually pivoted away from animal sacrifices towards other ways of drawing near to G!D. Spiritual practices such as Tefillah (prayer), Tzedakah (charity), and T’Shuvah (repentance) are some of the most powerful tools for us to spiritually “lean-in” to G!D (and to be leaned-in to by G!D). Rabbi Heschel wrote:
Prayer is the means through which we sacrifice our selfishness and greed and get in touch with our powers for truth, mercy and love. (Man’s Quest for God, p.71)
Whether communal or individual, when we’re willing to turn towards prayer, we surrender parts of ourselves (i.e., selfishness and greed) that may be interfering with a strong spiritual bond.
And prayer is not the only path we have available. When we engage in t’shuvah, we engage in an act of sacrifice, as the Talmud relates: “Whoever sacrifices his evil impulse and confesses it, has honored God.” (BT Sanhedrin, 43)
Much like religious ritual, most spiritual practices come with baggage, too. I’ve learned that my baggage often contributes to my distractibility, avoidance, and lack of focus. Yet, when I’m graced (a G!D-leaning-in-to-me thing) with the strength to lean in to prayer, t’shuvah, and tzedakah, my focus shifts and I’m often joyfully re-connected to sacred relationship.
Chaplain Adam Siegel