Finding Grounding When There Is No Ground

This Dvar Torah on Parashat Vayikra was written by Rabbi Frederick Klein, Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support and the VP of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami 

What day is today? Where am I? What will be? Will my family and friends be healthy? Will I be healthy?

IF you are asking these questions, and if you are human like me you certainly are, you would like some resolution, some answers some direction.   If you are a planner like me, who plans months ahead, likes a schedule, and is someone who prepares, these times can be disconcerting.

Our lives may be confined to a home, an apartment, or even a room if we are quarantined. Our plans are reduced to the hour, the moment. Will we go on that vacations? Who knows?  Will that wedding happen? Will that bar or bat mitzvah materialize? The future right now holds so much uncertainty.

What is the Torah we need right now in a time of radical uncertainty?

Parashat Vayikra describes the various sacrificial offerings brought to the Tabernacle in the desert and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. While fascinating in symbolism and meaning, for the uninitiated, these laws are heard to follow and difficult to relate to at best. What possible message can we gain from sacrificial offerings?

I’d like to offer you a teaching, a midrashOur tradition records a symposium of rabbis asking what the most important verse in the Torah is. Ben Zoma quotes what we probably expect. Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad, the verse [some Jews] say every morning and every evening. It’s the foundation of our faith.

Ben Nannus focuses not on our relationship with God, but our relationship with one another. V’Ahavta La’reacha Kamocha. Love your neighbor as yourself. Love of God and love of humanity are both worthy verses to be considered.  The interrelationship between the two was a topic of considerable discussion in the Second Temple period. (This midrash is quoted in the introduction to Ein Yaakov.)

Then there is Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi. “You will sacrifice a lamb in the morning and another at dusk” (Exod. 29:39, Num. 28:4). These verses refer to the obligation to bring two communal burnt offerings every day of the year, one at the break of dawn and the other proceeding sundown. Not exactly on the top ten list. 

Incredibly however, Rabbi Yehudah, the redactor of the Mishnah, stands up and declares, “The law is according to Shimon ben Pazi.” What exactly is going on?

I think there is a fundamental takeaway for us right now.  What does Shimon ben Pazi mean by saying this is the most important verse? It is obviously not or we would say it every day![1] Rather, the point of the verse is the most important. 

The daily offering on behalf of the people was brought every day, twice a day- rain or snow, peace or war, health or illness. It could be Yom Kippur, the day the high priest went into the holy of holies! Still, the day began and ended with the daily offerings. Religion is more than Yom Kippur moments. 

Following the destruction of the Temple, there was a crisis.  What would Jewish religion and life look like? The entire Jewish people were uprooted from the central institution of Jewish life. The national center had been destroyed. In a brilliant move, the rabbis replaced daily sacrifice with daily prayer, and the locus of Jewish tradition became the synagogues, the academies, and each individual home. The regularity and discipline which characterized Temple worship would now permeate daily Jewish life. 

Spirituality is not solely about holy of holy moments on Yom Kippur, but it is the product of daily spiritual gestures.   The rabbis understood how important the teaching of Ben Pazi is for Jewish flourishing in a new reality: every morning and every evening a Jew needs to make time for his or her personal growth.

This ancient teaching is true now more than ever.  We at this particular moment might feel that we too are totally dislocated. We might feel a tiny bit of the anxiety that our ancestors experienced. In truth however, during most of Jewish history we were uprooted and wandering, at least until 1948. In other words, this uncertainty and anxiety was the rule, not the exception.  

In our own generation, we only need to look to our Holocaust survivors to get a small sense what uprootedness can really mean.  Our Jewish tradition gave us tools to cope resiliently with uncertain times and all of them go back to Ben Pazi’s prosaic teaching. 

Our tradition teaches us the key to feeling grounded in uncertain times is to focus on every morning and every day.  Whether this is prayer or meditation, studying Torah, reading a Jewish book, or doing good deeds- we need to be proactive like the priest of old, making time for our spiritual lives.

That isn’t always easy. Furthermore, each individual act may not provide the ground or peace we seek. These daily acts are effective not in the potency of each gesture, but rather cumulatively. 

I would like to give you an example: As some of you might know, many in these uncertain times have dedicated [themselves] to study daf yomi, a page of Talmud a day. One finishes the Talmud after seven and a half years. Anyone engaged in this endeavor can tell you there is not enough time to fully grasp what is being said, and not every page is as engaging as one might hope. Rather the inspiration comes from the daily gesture, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. 

I recently heard a story of a man in Israel who was dying from cancer, and when being informed that he probably only had a month to live he began to cry. The man explained that he was not crying only because he was dying, but that he had spent over seven years studying the Talmud, and now would not be able to complete it.  The Israeli physician worked with the patient, and found a teacher to teach him two pages as day as opposed to one. From his hospital bed, he was able to complete the Talmud, and the medical staff and family celebrated together. For this man, it was one of the highlights of his life. He died two days later.

We can’t plan our lives right now, but we can plan the content of our days and hours. The radical uncertainty we are experiencing is really a lesson about the radical uncertainty of life itself.   Our response is to attempt to find the spiritual ground every day.

This is the message of the book of Leviticus, and the message for our time right now. The word for divine worship in Hebrew is avodah, the same word used for the sacrifices, and the same word for labor. We need to actively seek out daily gestures of spiritual meaning, which help us to provide the grounding we need during these difficult times.   Just like we pave a path brick by prick, when we focus on the laying of each daily brick in the path of our lives, we will see that indeed- in the words of Robert Frost-- we did take a path less traveled, and it will make all the difference.

I bless each of you with a Shabbat filled with shalom.

[1] In actuality, traditional Jews actually do recite the daily sacrifices in the liturgy, as the rabbis teach that their daily invocation is akin to them being offered. The times of prayers similarly are based upon the times of these sacrifices. 

Shabbat Shalom

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