Socially Distant, Spiritually Close

What follows is a text version of my comments from Shabbat morning services on 3/28/20. Best to one and all for a Shavuah Tov, a good week of peace and health.

      We began reading this morning the third book of the Torah, called in English Leviticus, and in Hebrew Yayikra.  The English title for the book – again, Leviticus – comes from the subject matter of most of the text, namely the rules and regulations that the Priests followed some two thousand five hundred years ago as the religious leaders of ancient Israel.  The Priests were from the tribe of – Levi – the levitical tribe – and so the book, because it deals with priestly law, is called Leviticus. 

     Of all of the priests’ responsibilities, probably the most important was the offering of sacrifices.  In ancient Israel when someone wanted to thank God for a blessing, they brought a sacrifice.  When they wanted to apologize to God for something they had done wrong, they brought a sacrifice.  When someone wanted to worship God on a holiday, they brought a sacrifice – in each case to the Temple in Jerusalem.  They gave their animal to the priest, who ritually killed it, sprinkled its blood on the altar, and then offered it to God.  

    Today that ritual sounds bizarre if not barbaric.  But there is no question that for our ancestors it was a profound and powerful way of experiencing God’s presence in their lives and in their world.  The sense of what the sacrificial ritual meant to them is conveyed in the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban – ק ר ב ן.  It comes from the root kuf, reish, bet, and in verb form the word means ‘to come close to.’  In other words, the sacrificial system, as strange as it seems to us today, was a means by which our ancestors felt they were able to come close to God.

     Now that might seem on the surface – that idea of coming close – like a strange idea to bring to mind today, during these unimaginable and challenging times.  Because the one thing we are not supposed to be doing today is coming close to one another.  I don’t know if you’ve had this experience, but Becky and I were in Wegmans early Thursday morning, and the complicated dance that people are engaged in trying to on the hand get to the carrots, or whatever it is they want, but on the other hand to stay the proper six feet apart from one another is a remarkable thing to watch.

     I know of families where children have come home from the New York area, and are in effect quarantined in their own homes.  They eat separately from their families, they sleep in the basement and not in their bedrooms, and they’ve been home a week or more, and in all that time have not been kissed or hugged or touched in any way by their parents or siblings.

     Or what about our service this morning?  The Cantor and I needed to figure out how to conduct a service where two young men are becoming bar mitzvah, all the while maintaining proper social distance from them and their family.  So we needed to figure out a way that Grant and Drew could read the material they had prepared but not take out the Torah, which by definition during a service is a point of physical contact.  These truly are strange times, and I would only say to Grant and Drew that one day you’ll sit in the rabbi’s office at Beth El with your own children, getting ready for their bar or bat mitzvah.  And whoever the rabbi is then (because I’ll be long retired), will ask you about your own bar mitzvah, and you will be able to honestly say, ‘Rabbi, it was a time none of us will ever forget.  It was a time of social distancing.’

     But the question for us to consider, as a congregation, as a community, and maybe even as a country, is this:  in this time of social distancing, of physically staying apart, how can we spiritually come closer together?  How can we feel the sense of community, caring, and connection that we all so desperately need at this time?  To one another, to our families, to our friends, to our tradition, and to God?

     So here are two ideas, two things we might consider doing in the days and weeks ahead, so that we can be מקרב –  – so that we can come – spiritually – closer to others, and so that they might come – spiritually – closer to us.

     The first thing is to join in.  There has been an explosion of virtual communities forming on the internet over the last ten days.  Musical communities – bands and musicians giving live concerts, or streaming concerts they’ve recently played.  Sports communities – I saw a group got together to run a hypothetical March madness pool – I hate to say it, but in the one I saw Maryland was upset in round one.  And we have seen here at Beth El remarkable, warm, caring, connected virtual prayer and study and meditation communities spring to life, from our morning minyan to our Shabbat services to our check ins and Saturday night communal Havdallah, literally thousands of people have come together virtually with Beth El as their point of connection, and while doing so have truly touched one another’s spirits.  Greeting one another, wishing one another good morning and Shabbat Shalom, sharing Torah with one another – all online!  So that is thing number one – join in!

     The second thing I would suggest is this:  go one step further than you normally would.  There is a concept in Jewish law -לפנים מן שורת הדין – going beyond the letter of the law.  This is a time to apply that idea to every interaction we have with another person.  Be just a little bit kinder.  Go out of your way to make the phone call or send the email or say hi to the neighbor and ask how they are doing.  Be a little bit more patient than you normally are.  Tensions are running high, and patience is in short supply.  Be a little bit more caring.  Be a little bit more loving.  I’ve received so many emails and FB inboxes this week with kind comments and thoughts, things that I know people normally think, but they just don’t bother to send.  But this week they bothered.  This week they took the time.  This week they went one step further.  And it makes a difference.  And it doesn’t have to be something huge!  These are little things, but this is a time when the little things make all the difference in the world.

     I said earlier that the Hebrew word for sacrifice is קרבן, the root of which means to come close.  But if you look in the translation of our Humash, you’ll see that word is not  translated as sacrifice, but rather as offering.  I actually like that word better than sacrifice.  It is a gentler word.  It is a word of freely giving to another, and in that act of giving making a connection with another person.  Sacrifice is about me, about what I’ve given up.  Offering is about us, about how we connected as human beings during a sacred moment.  It is about both giving and receiving.  

     And that is what we’ve seen happen over these last days.  People are giving of their talents, their music, their art, their wisdom, their teaching, their kindness, their caring.  And others are receiving those gifts, all the while giving gifts of their own.  And in that process of gracious giving and grateful receiving we are in fact coming closer to one another, and I would argue closer to God as well.  In that journey may we find comfort and hope and strength.  

     From the 29th Psalm:  ה׳ עז לעמו יתן ה׳ יבך את עמו בשלום – May God give strength to God’s people, may God bless us all with peace – 

Author: Steve Schwartz

Husband, father of three, Deadhead, and rabbi. I am now in my 22nd year of serving a large congregation in the Baltimore area.

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