Parashat Vayikra 5780
Delivered on March 27, 2020 as the D’var Torah for Zoom Shabbat.
As the Israelites traveled through the wilderness, they would set up their camp in a particular way. Picture this: each tribe was situated in relationship to others, like spokes on a wheel. At the core was the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting and the Mishkan, the dwelling presence for God, the central place for all Divine interaction. Within this set up, it was established who could be in what areas of the camp, and who could come close to the Mishkan. Concentric circles, keeping more and more people away from the holiest of holies was part of the layout of our community’s gathering place. This design for the Mishkan would become the model floor plan for the Temples in Jerusalem as well.
A tension exists within this picture. The Israelites are brought together as a community, and they are also limited with how close they can be to God. It is as if God pulls the Israelites in with one arm, and pushes away with the other.
We see this tension throughout our tradition. It is in this week’s Torah portion, and it is in the stories we love from the book of Exodus, too.
This week, we begin a new book of Torah, Leviticus, which is a textbook for living in spiritual tension: How close can you get to God’s presence before you are made separate and apart from everyone else?
This is best illustrated with two key words: Koran and kedusah.
102 times throughout Leviticus, the Priestly authors use the root Karov, meaning to come close. A korban, of the same root, is the Biblical Hebrew word for “sacrifice.” When the Israelites made sacrifices they did so in order to come close to God, to know God, to do what was pleasing for God.
Why? For the sake of that second key word; because of Kedushah, for the sake of holiness.
So often we wonder, Why we are called to particular mitzvot? My brother wants me to make a case for keeping Kosher. Some wrestle with the meaning and restrictions around Shabbat. The Levitical answer is direct: because God is holy. And these actions draw ourselves closer to God’s will. The mitzvot impart holiness.
And, it is important to note that holiness is layered. The term kedushah also implies separateness. For as much as we want to be b’karov, close to God, through our own version of korbanot, offerings in prayer; kedushah also implies that we are hek’desh, separate and apart.
In Jewish mystical thought, it’s phrased as d’veikut, from the same word as dvek, or glue. Early Chassidic thinkers taught that every Jew’s ultimate striving should be the desire and effort to cleave to God. Yet, like the word cleave, the whole concept is an auto-antonym. To cleave is to both “firmly adhere to something” and “to split away from something.”
In other words, being near and far away at the same time. The moments of connecting with God are by definition moments in which we are drawn in close, and separateness is accentuated. Does that resonate with our experience as of late?
This strangeness that we are experiencing, our spiritual forebears knew. It happened at Mount Sinai. When the Israelites gathered at God’s mountain, God and Moses discuss where the people should be. God both wants the people to come close, yet recognizes the danger in doing that. In reaction, Moses recalls that God has already instructed the Israelites to stay away: “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai,” Moses says, “for You warned us saying, ‘Set bounds about the mountain and sanctify it (v’kidashto).’”1
The mountain is holy because of the boundaries God instructed the Israelites to draw. Cleave. Stay close. Move away.
Moses has known this tension for some time. Before Sinai, Moses stood with God at the Burning Bush. The miracle of the bush draws Moses in, but then immediate God calls out, “Do not come closer (al tikriv). Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground (adamat-kodesh hu).”2
This tension can also be described by mixing metaphors: At the same time we are like moths to a flame, and children taught not to touch the hot stove lest we get burned.
The tension that exists when we look at the root meanings of korbanot and kedushah present another consideration: How can we find holiness, when we cannot be close to one another?
Earlier this week, a colleague of mine suggested that we are using the wrong term. He said we should not call it social distancing; rather, physical distancing. I have had more conversations by Zoom, FaceTime, and the phone than any other recent period in my mind. I have had the opportunity to catch up with friends who live far away, when we are both too often too busy to really talk. Technology enables our social connections, even when we are called to be physically apart from one another.
And, closeness has manifested itself in a different way. For some of us, we have fuller houses than we expected. Kids are all staying home from school. College students have settled back into their own rooms. And some of us are more like the fellow who goes to the rabbi saying his house is too small. He then brings in the hens, the cows, and the goats, waiting for that day when he can take them all back out again…
Yet, for all of the good connections we can make with one another, when that can help us feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, the physical distance can also be painful. And for many of us this shut-down has been painful. Life has continued to move around us, even while we are hunkered down at home. Some of us have experienced losses in our families unrelated to COVID-19. All of us are wrestling with the economic earthquakes in the midst of this public health tropical storm. We are all more like the Israelites here than we often recognize. This is a wilderness none of us have wandered before, and here we are figuring it out together. And in the midst of that uncertainty and pain, we cannot hold one another’s hands. We cannot give one another a hug. The normal thing we would do as a community is physically draw close to one another, and we just can’t do that right now. I am so sorry that that is part of this reality.
But, as I look around at our virtual sanctuary tonight, I have an observation: You are not alone. We may not be sitting right next to you, but we are right beside you. Come COVID-19 or recession, kedusah can still be present. I think of the saying “Distance makes the heart grow fonder,” picturing the classic movie image of the two love-birds running to one another from a distance across a meadow. And I imagine that on a communal level. This is life interrupted, and gam zu yaavor, this too shall pass. We will be together again.
So tonight, I want us to try a phrase. Take a moment and let us quietly say to ourselves, “I am not alone.”
We are not alone. We are meant to be close to one another. We will be close to one another soon enough. Thank God for community. Thank God for family and friends. Thank God for the gifts of closeness and connection. I pray we will all know communal nearness and God’s holiness through this strange, unfortunate, difficult time.
We are all in it together. May we find a sense of spiritual and emotional connection in the midst of the distance, and I pray healing from that. May we each know health and wholeness, and even perhaps a touch of God’s holiness.