An Elevated and Intimate Space
by Jhos Singer
The work of redemption is hard, relentless, time-consuming, and costly. Whether we are talking about mistakes or accidents, intentional behavior or inadvertent acts—when we have caused disruption in our community, it requires tikkun, a fixing, a tuning, a repair. And it’s expensive.
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36) details some of the apparatuses that ancient Judaism offered to help with maintaining communal balance. These included a plethora of sacrifices and offerings that would atone for missteps as well as abundance, that would help redistribute both guilt and wealth. These offering included creatures, grain, and flour, drink and incense. Living beings—cows, bulls, goats, birds—were reduced to their component parts: bone and flesh, fat and blood, but not haphazardly, rather with skill and intent, concentration and focus. To take the life of these animals was no small thing—this was not an abattoir but a sacred altar, and the life lost was momentary. The whole point was to transfer a vital stream of energy from one being to another, in service of raising both souls and drawing close to the maker of all.
To be honest, this section of the Torah is my least favorite. The details are gross and many. I’m a broad strokes kind of guy—I like narrative arcs, not project outlines; I want to hear about how people felt, not what they did devoid of emotional content. And so, perhaps, this Torah comes to challenge people like me.
I cannot help but notice that the most common words that describe the offerings are “olah” and “korban”. Olah derives from the root O(ayin)-L-H and means to go up, to arise, to ascend, to exalt, to be esteemed while Korban comes from the root K-R-B and implies drawing close, to be near, touching, to claim relationship. What if this ritual is suggesting that in order to close our wounds or balance our good fortune we need to enter an elevated and intimate space with each other? What if the arena for healing is a profoundly visceral encounter with both life and death? What if a true spiritual cleansing is only possible by walking through the ashes and smoke, gristle and gore of our sacrifices?
In the modern world, our trust is in the sanitized and distant processes of modern intellectual and medical healing. While there is no question these forms have merit and benefit, should we rely on them alone? What if our scars crave direct contact, full-throated screams, looking into the face of the other who says, “I forgive you.” Or “I am so sorry.”? Perhaps I prefer a good story because maybe I simply envy those ancients whose hunger for healing drew them keening and gagging to the blood-spattered altar described in this portion.
Every day our world careens further and further away from unity, and deeper into polarization. Humanity acts in opposition to the Torah’s mythic sacrifices—rather than ascend we descend, rather than touching we pull apart. Our rabbis, blessings be upon them, taught that though we no longer could conduct animal sacrifice to commune, prayer could be offered instead. So, with them as our source, let us offer prayers that burn and bleed, that cleanse and atone, that free and bind us. Let us find the mercy and strength needed to admit to wounds we have inflicted. And may the wounded find the compassion to pray for the full redemption of all.
I offer this teaching in the spirit of Purim, a time of humor and horror, persecution and redemption, political victory and moral undoing. May we strive for a time when all perpetrators of violence and all survivors of violence seek healing for one another.
This is the law of the burn-offering, the meal-offering, the sin-offering, and the guilt-offering; and the inauguration-offerings, and the feast peace-offerings; which The One commanded Moses on Mount Sinai, on the day the Children of Israel were commanded to bring their offering to The One, in the Wilderness of the Sinai.” Leviticus 7:37-38