Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Rosh Chodesh Nisan 5775, 21st March 2015
Today is quite a day. We begin a book of the Torah, we begin a new month, we begin a new/old government. Spring is, or will be, in the air, hope abounds, all’s well with the world. Well, let’s not go overboard on that.
Let’s start with the Torah portion. Vayikra brings us straight into the world of sacrifices, korbanot, those acts that are intended to bring us closer (karov) to God usually through some manner of propitiation in the form of an animal or bird or meal cake – the exact form of korban to be determined by the severity of the sin that we have committed and the concomitant level of atonement or appeasement that is needed.
I don’t want to deal with the essence of sacrifices, which is a sticky question. It’s enough to say on the one hand that it can be dismissed as a reflection of the times – so that a renewed Temple with sacrifices today might entail a virtual sacrifice much like the virtual kvittelach we can send by email to be inserted, virtually, in the Kotel, the Western Wall. On the other hand, it may touch upon some deep seated reflex within our psyches that somehow allows us to eradicate our sins and start over as fresh as a newborn baby. As I said, I don’t want to talk about that.
What I do want to dwell on is the underlying assumption of the korbanot and of the mitzvoth in general. That is that there is a system of absolute values, there is right and wrong, good and bad. This is not something we take for granted today. We seem to have gone beyond the post-modernistic view of there being no absolutes. We used to talk about it (don’t tell me what good art is – if I think it’s good, it’s good; the same with music, the same with food, the same with the language I use and the values I keep). Today, we don’t. It has become an integral part of our lives. Along with blaming our environment for our shortcomings. Remember Officer Krupke, from West Side Story:
Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset;
We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get.
We ain’t no delinquents, We’re misunderstood.
Deep down inside us there is good!
Officer Krupke, you’re really a square;
This boy don’t need a judge, he needs an analyst’s care!
It’s just his neurosis that oughta be curbed.
He’s psychologic’ly disturbed!
But then we read in the Torah about mitzvoth and about korbanot, and we see a different approach. One that says: there is a right and a wrong. There is atonement. There is a way to cleanse ourselves of wrongdoing (which also exists).
What this entails first is the assumption of responsibility for our actions. We are not what we are because of the circumstances in which we were born – of course they do have an effect, but they are not exclusively responsible for making us – us. We have to own up to what we have done and not done.
And in fact, the first type of sacrifice mentioned in Vayikra is called the korban Olah, and it is brought for failing to perform a positive (do this) type of commandment. Even if it was by accident. Even if we meant to do it but were prevented from performing it.
In today’s approach, such an oversight might be downplayed. You meant to do it, which is as good as doing it (which is what politicians say about their promises).
One might go so far as to say that this type of contrition, the korban, the atonement, brings us back to an earlier stage in the evolution of moral behavior, back to what Piaget called the pre-operational stage. Here’s an example. Many years ago, when one of my nephews was about 2 years old, he was running so fast he accidentally stepped into the street. Immediately he returned to the sidewalk, and came over to my sister and put out his hand. She gave it a very light tap, and he walked away, appeased.
What happened? He had “sinned”. Accidentally. We all saw that. But he had to be given at least symbolic punishment for him to feel whole again. My sister understood that.
Is this what the korban olah is meant to do – bring us back to age two? No. It is meant to make us more vigilant about what we do, so that we make sure to do the right thing when we are supposed to. When the opportunity comes to perform a positive action, we should take it, and not have to atone for our oversight later.
Today, we also read parshat Hachodesh, announcing the first of the months of the year for us, Nissan, the month of our liberation, the month from which we begin to count the rest of our days of the year (and lives). The rabbis argued (rhetorically of course) that this should have been the beginning of the Torah, because this parsha encompasses the first mitzvoth that we were specifically given as a people. The korban Pesach. But of course we have to know where we come from, and why, and how, and so Bereshit and the first part of Shmot give us the details.
This is also the time to extend our best wishes to the new/old government that will hopefully be formed. May it see the many opportunities it has to fulfill positive commandments, such as improving our health, education and welfare systems with an eye to equality and justice for all, and jump in to actually do something about them so that they don’t have to bring korbanot later to atone for their oversights before those who suffer – us, of course.
Shabbat Shalom. Chodesh tov