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“Becoming a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People – Learning to Love Leviticus”
By Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW, AJRCA Professor of Ritual and Human Development
I learned to love Leviticus when I was working at Metivta in the 1990’s. At Reb Jonathan’s invitation, Ellen Winer, Judith Riven and I started the Jewish Healing Center at Metivta.
There is a story in the Talmud, which tells of a visit to the ruins of the Temple by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakki and his student Rabbi Yehoshua, who lived in the time following the destruction of the Temple. “Woe to us,” said Rabbi Yehoshua, “for the place that atones for the sins of our people has been destroyed.” “No.” says his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakki. “God no longer wants sacrifice. God wants acts of loving-kindness. These acts of loving-kindness will now atone for our sins.”
What is the connection between the sacrifices of the Temple and the acts of loving-kindness, such as those that we performed at the Metivta healing center? How does the intention of sacrifice relate to such earthly practices as visiting the sick or comforting the bereaved? In order to understand this connection, we need an understanding of sacrifice that fits both instances.
As you know, the Hebrew word for sacrifice means, “Bringing close or drawing near.”
to approach, to come nearer, so as to create a close relationship with someone. Therefore, one who brings a sacrifice should come in closer relationship to God.
The Book of Leviticus, which used to be called, Torat Kohanim, the teachings or the rituals of the priests, can be seen as a manual for insuring that closeness.
Reb Jonathan taught us that when the temple stood, it was the place (HaMakom) where God resided. But that when the temple was destroyed, HaMakom/God took up residence in other dimensions: Place, Time, and Soul.
When we meditate, we build a residence for God, B’kirbi (inside ourselves) in the dimension of Soul, just as we do when we care for others, and God dwells in the shared place within and between us. Let’s look at how the spiritual technology of the Temple, that we read about today, the sacrifices, transfer into this dimension of soul.
Moshe Halberstal speaks first of the parallel understandings of sacrifice. The Biblically prescribed sacrifices overseen by the priests were a:
…gift… From humans to God…. Involv[ing] an object, usually an animal… transferred from the human to the divine realm.
His second definition would speak to that which is given by today’s caregivers:
Giving up a vital interest for a higher cause. [like time or comfort]
The gift carried “b’kirbi”/within ourselves could be seen as the equivalent of the sacrifice/“korbon” that was brought by others who wished to “l’hkriv” come closer to God. Each of the Hebrew words in the previous sentence has the root “KRB.” This might indicate that the inner experience could be a parallel or a mirror for the material offerings brought as sacrifices to the Temple.
We might then see sacrifice as a gift of self whether it is material or personal: whether it is the gift (korbon) of a carefully raised and nurtured goat brought to the Temple on a pilgrimage festival or b’kirbi coming from the gut, the gift of precious time spent visiting the sick or preparing the dead for burial.
The ancients “drew near” by bringing first fruits to the Temple in gratitude or a dove or goat as atonement for an infraction. Today’s chaplains or Caring Community members “draw near” by reaching out to visit someone who is sick or to comfort the mourner. Both create a sacred bond that draws near the one who gives and the one who receives. In the Temple, it was with God. Today the connection is with the part of God that dwells in the other.
These parallel experiences reveal the lived experience of Jewish spiritual practice, which have transcended the paradigm shift from Temple based religious cult to a modern religion lived in community.