ConnecTorah: Va'ikra 3.15.19

On Friday, March 15, 2019, our member Sophie Weiss shared these wonderful words of Torah with our community at Underground Shabbat:

Raise your hand if you have heard of the term Jewish guilt. Ah, yes. It seems that, as I expected, every person here has heard of some good ole-fashioned guilt. And guess what - you lucky people get to hear about the first ever recorded sources of Jewish guilt, and not just that, but also how to get rid of it. The Parashat this week was Va’ikra, which translates to “and He called.” It was a hard read, but the gist of it is that people sin and guessed it - guilt! And then, according to which sins you have committed, there are certain animals that you must sacrifice.

Trying to find meaning in sacrifice is difficult in the abstract. As someone who chooses not to eat meat, sacrificing animals isn’t exactly at the top of my to do list. But the closer I read, the more I found humanity. I found compassion, the idea of that this wasn’t just for God - this was for us, too. This was a way of saying “I have wronged you, and I want to fix this.” Sacrifice is not where my mind goes when I need to say “I’m sorry,” but the idea that you should say sorry and take responsibility for your actions is. For example, the portion reads, “A person incurs guilt when he is a witness but does not testify.” The idea that being a bystander is something you should repent for is important. That you have a responsibility to do the right thing, stand up for others, and speak truth is important. “A person who sins for acting negligently incurs guilt.” Your actions affect others, what you do matters, and you should be aware of that. This one really got me: “If the entire council of Israel sins inadvertently and something is hidden from the community, guilt will be incurred. If the sin becomes known in the community, then the community shall bring an offering for sin.” We are responsible not just for ourselves, but for each other, regardless of which side we are on. And if our community is broken, it is our responsibility to come together to fix it. And this was not just expected of some people, this was expected of everyone in the community.

Even those who couldn’t afford sacrifice were accounted for: “If the person’s means are not even sufficient for these animals or birds, then a fine flower is to be the offering to clear sin.” This is amazing for three reasons: one, that the poor were thought of in this time and it was recorded; two, that their means for sacrifice were modified; and three, poor people at this time were not able to read meaning and this all had to be communicated, which led to different statuses of Jews intermingling for the purpose of bettering themselves and each other.

This portion also acknowledges that it’s not always about another person, but that sometimes it’s about saying sorry to yourself. “If a person incurs guilt, he shall acknowledge to himself that he has sinned and he shall bring to God an offering for his guilt.” While I’m sure that mental health was not at the forefront of this portion, I can’t help but read that and think of the many times I have been hard on myself, or been so upset with myself over a mistake that I made. Here’s some real Jewish guilt for ya: Sometimes we get so good at saying sorry to others we forget to say it to ourselves. Or maybe we don’t forget to. Maybe we don’t think we are worthy of our own forgiveness. And maybe we have been conditioned to feel this way.

Something that has always bothered me is that a lot of people associate Reform Judaism with being “less Jewish”. For a long time, I didn’t know how I fit into Judaism. I think I internalized this guilt, feeling that perhaps because I didn’t know where I fit in, it made me less of a Jew, as if I didn’t have my own claim to what it meant to be Jewish. As if the only way to be Jewish has a set instruction guide. Do I think that sacrificing an animal to God makes me forgiven for being a bad friend? Absolutely not. A sacrifice doesn’t fix that, and doesn’t actually affect the person I’ve wronged, but it does give me something to think about. The fact that I need to apologize does not change, but my methods do. And as a people, I have to believe that, even if the temple were not destroyed, we have adapted enough that we wouldn’t sacrifice. And I don’t think it makes me less of a Jew to feel that way.

The reason I identify most with Reform Judaism is because it is one of the only sects that recognizes that we live in an ever-changing world. Each day we learn and grow and change, and because of that, religion has to adapt with it. We don’t have a choice, because living in the past doesn’t prepare us for our future. Tradition is important, but so is evolution. As a Jewish people, we tend to identify ourselves with being survivors. And the reason we survive is because we adapt, because we change, because for us, it is “where there’s a will there’s a way,” and we have always had will, so we have always made a way. And we shouldn’t feel guilty for that, we should be proud of it.

ConnecTorah will share the Divrei Torah given by our members at our Underground Shabbats. If you’re interested in joining us at Shabbat, please check our calendar and contact us if you have any questions.