Tag Archive | sacrifice

Drawing near in the second year

“On the first day of the first month in the second year….” (Exodus 40:17)

Millenia ago, we are told, Moses erected the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, on the first day of the month Nisan, one year out of Egypt. This portable sanctuary would replace Mount Sinai as the location at which which the Israelites would draw close to God.

On the same day on the Jewish calendar, earlier this week, we opened the doors to our sanctuary after having closed them one year ago in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One by one, over a two-hour period of time in the afternoon, our inheritors of the Israelites’ legacy entered the synagogue to draw close in prayer before the open ark.

When Moses completed the Tabernacle’s construction, the cloud of God‘s presence filled the tent; so thick was it that no one could enter. True, our building has been closed to unfettered entrance for a year now, but our community has felt the presence of the Divine at its center. We have traveled this past year‘s journey with a shared sense of connection, care and trust.

As individuals emerged from the warm building into the chilly afternoon air on Sunday afternoon, several inquired from behind their masks when we would be resuming our in-person, indoor services. My initial response was to remind the inquirers that we are blessed to have a relatively full calendar of lifecycle events. Between now and the middle of May, we have families celebrating lifecycle events in the sanctuary almost every Shabbat, albeit with limited attendance, masking and physical distancing.

I followed this response, however, with a question. What does “returning” look like? We are accustomed to Shabbat mornings that are uplifting, inspiring and intimate. Hypothetically, if we were to resume services in May with 50 masked people dispersed in a space that holds 300, would we achieve any of the goals we aspire to in our congregational services? Moreover, are we prepared to have services that are accessible only to the vaccinated, thereby excluding a large segment of our community?

The varied responses of the people who attended our Sunday afternoon “open house” program were also telling. Some felt filled up simply by having a few quiet moments in the sanctuary. Others felt deeply saddened by the sense of lost time, friends and community that our largely empty sanctuary represents. Still others came simply to express gratitude for the ways in which the Divine presence has extended beyond the walls of the building and permeated the walls of our Zoom rooms.

In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to monitor the pulse of our community, weighing our desire to be together against the behavior we can model to move our community closer to full vaccination. In the absence of a compelling need to change course, we will continue to operate deliberately, striving to take advantage of every opportunity to safely and meaningfully bring people together.

As we turn to the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) this week, we are reminded that God calls to us to “draw near” in sacrifice. The Hebrew word for sacrificial offering, korban, literally means “near” or “close” at its root. Some would say that this past year of the pandemic has brought our community closer together than ever before. Drawing closer in the year ahead, however, may require even greater sacrifice: greater patience; greater understanding; greater appreciation for the many ways we can serve God, community and humanity.

We have already dabbled in the world of “hybrid” programming, where the experience for some is in person and for others is virtual. There is no doubt that our next phase of programming will involve an increase in our hybrid offerings. So long as we can gather in person while there are some who cannot access vaccination or who remain at risk, we will in essence need to create two simultaneous experiences. This will demand even greater creativity and commitment, individually and communally, than we have ever shown before. And in light of all I have seen over these past months, I have no doubt that we are up to the task.

We have proven that our tabernacle transcends—and must continue to transcend— the fixed and the portable, the physical and the virtual, accessible to all who seek to draw near.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

Heart in hand

“Bilvavi mishkan evneh l’hadar k’vodo, Uv’mishkan mizbei’ach asim l’karnei hodo….”

In my heart I will build a sanctuary for the splendor of God’s honor, and in the sanctuary I shall place an altar to the rays of glory. And I will take for myself the fire of the Binding (of Isaac) as an Eternal Flame. And as a sacrifice I shall offer Him my soul, my one and only soul. (From “Sefer Chareidim” by R’ Elazar Az’kari)

Over the last several weeks, we have studied the laws of the sacrifices detailed in the Torah, culminating with the dedication of the altar and the installation of the High Priest. But this past week’s parasha (Shemini), using the narrative of the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu as a vehicle, reminds us that the sacrificial cult is accompanied by strict boundaries that are not to be transgressed. And just as the priests must abide by these rules, if we are to be the “Kingdom of Priests” that God desires us to be, we too must recognize the inherent risks inherent in being given access to the Divine, and respect the sanctity of the boundaries in our own lives.

The root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, can be translated as near or close. Sacrifice, then, is better understood in the biblical context as the way in which we draw near to the Divine. It is an invitation to achieve a sense of intimacy and communion with God. In our modern context, sacrifice is what we offer of ourselves in our attempt to achieve a deeper connection with those people, causes and things about which we are passionate.

Not everyone, however, is so comfortable with intimacy. Drawing near means being seen, possibly exposing our vulnerabilities, revealing our flaws. Maintaining distance, on the other hand, keeps us safe, protects our anonymity, and avoids risk.

Moreover, the fiery passion that may accompany intimacy, if unchecked, can be all-consuming, excluding to others, and costly to the self. When we care passionately about a person or a cause, we may throw ourselves–our emotional energy, our time, our resources–into the relationship. Sometimes we may even go too far in our zeal, forgetting about self-care and about our other priorities, and excluding the voices of others who may share our passions or who may stand in opposition because of their own hierarchy of values.

Relationship requires sacrifice. If we are to achieve true intimacy, we must be ready to give with no expectation of reward, to assume the risk of being hurt or even of hurting another despite our best intentions. We must be prepared to get messy, because the intensity and zeal that can accompany intimacy is not always accompanied by rational behavior.

But sacrifice also requires regulation and control. The failure to curb one’s enthusiasm can lead to disastrous results, harming the parties to the intimacy and those tangentially related. While we may no longer approach God with sacrifices in hand, we must build sanctuaries in our hearts, with altars fed by our purest intentions, upon which we offer our deeds. And as we bring our souls to the altar of intimate connections, may we not lose sight of those around us ready to do the same.

Rabbi Craig Scheff

The CaLL

Draw near
Place before Me
Your vulnerability and regret
Your wholeness and gratitude
Stand in My presence
With outstretched hands
Offer Me your heart

Do You not recognize the companion of Your soul?
From every stranger, neighbor, friend and lover
I summon,
In every dawn and dusk
I reveal,
In every breath
I call

Return to
The garden
The mountain
The sanctuary
The body
The heart
The makom-place
where You will find me waiting

I CaLL to You, with a small “a-aleph
To remind You that I am,
That We are One
In all things

Raise Your body to the heavens
Stretch Your fingers to the skies
Wave Your offering to the universe;
But look to Your palms
And discover:
I have sacrificed for You
My heart

“AND THE LORD CaLLED TO MOSES….” (Leviticus 1:1)

 Rabbi Craig Scheff
Vayikra 5778
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