D’var Torah, Vayikra: When Our Hands Get Dirty
by Billy Dreskin
Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, is not the most compelling by a long shot. With only a couple of good stories (Nadab and Abihu in chapter 10, and the blasphemer in chapter 24), Leviticus is mostly about sacrifices, bodily secretions, and being a priest. It does contain, however, the “Holiness Code” (chapters 17–26), and offers a “greatest hits” listing of ethical and ritual obligations in chapter 19 from which many of our congregations read on Yom Kippur.
Leviticus’ limitations aside, it’s my favorite book of the Torah, not because it’s a page-turner, but because it’s about human responsibility. Its words have God challenging us, saying, “You want to have a relationship with Me? Then there’s stuff you need to do. You want blessings in your life? You’re going to have to work for them.”
And isn’t that what our lives are all about? There is stuff we need to do: jobs to get to, people to live with, dreams to chase after. Blessings abound, to be sure, but if we’re to experience any sort of sustained presence of those blessings, life requires that we engage with it and with each other.
Along the way, there will be disappointment, perhaps much of it. Because no matter how expert we are or how kind we are, life gets rocky. And only very rarely do miraculous interventions save the day. Mostly, we have to fix things ourselves. Well, not only ourselves. Usually, we’re blessed to have good people in our lives who help us shoulder our burdens and get back on our feet.
Leviticus gives us the prescription for how to do that. We have to be careful, though. Its teachings are couched in a lot of ancient imagery. To access any contemporary message, we’ll have to work at that as well.
For example, in Leviticus 5:2–6 we read, “When a person touches any impure thing [...] and then, being impure, that person realizes guilt; [...] one shall confess [...] and one shall bring as a penalty to the Eternal [...] a purgation offering.”
The Torah has a way of working things out through purgation offerings. But with the fall of the Jerusalem Temple, we had to find an alternative path to taking care of our shortcomings. So now, the sacrificial offerings have become a symbol of our efforts in life to make things right.
Rashi asked what the sin was in touching an impure thing. His answer: “If while in a state of impurity, a person ate holy food or entered the holy Sanctuary.” So, according to Rashi, the sin wasn’t touching the impure; it was what he did after that. In other words, God does not require of us that we never come in contact with the impure but that, when we do, we recognize it and adjust our subsequent actions.
What is “impure” in our lives today? There’s a fairly easy answer to this question: things we try not to touch. Like downed electrical wires, spoiled foods and other substances that aren’t good for us, or property that isn’t ours.
But there are other items we do touch, even though ordinarily we try to stay away from them. When a family member gets sick, we’re there to clean up. We do so not because it’s easy for us, but to help someone we care about. In a sense, the touching becomes its own offering.
I marvel at my twenty-three-year-old daughter Katie’s ability to remove ticks from our dog. To me, it might as well be a giant tarantula crawling across Charlie’s body; the irrational fear factor just gets the better of me. But Katie jumps right in, knowing that Charlie can’t do this for himself and the removal helps keep him healthy.
And then there’s the even tougher stuff we “touch.” A number of years ago, I delivered what I thought was one of the worst sermons of my life. It was about toxic children, and the need to sometimes move them out of our lives, at least temporarily, until they take responsibility for their own challenges. I presented the sermon on a Shabbat morning when two families were celebrating (or trying to celebrate) their children becoming b’nei mitzvah. Some called my words fearless; others, mistimed. But after the service, a remarkable occurrence took place. A couple that had belonged to the temple for a long time approached me to say they weren’t usual attendees of the Shabbat morning service, but that something had impelled them to come that morning. “You see,” they told me, “just yesterday we told our child, who is a longtime substance abuser, that he needed to move out of our home, and that he shouldn’t come back until he’s taken care of his addiction. We were feeling just awful about it and thought we should come to temple.”
What are the odds? In one fell swoop, they were able to find some comfort after taking such difficult action, and I too found comfort after a less-than-stellar topic selection. We did that for each other.
Life is a hands-on experience. If we’re going to show up we’re going to get our hands dirty, not because we don’t care, but because we do. And when that happens we need a pathway to return. We may find it in prayer, in relationship, or in brave yet difficult action. However we proceed, that path is likely to be far more constructive (and healing) than running from the problem.
Leviticus is about sticking things out. While yes, we make mistakes—and plenty of them—we don’t run away but, to the contrary, we try to make things right. For our ancestors, a goat or a ram offering did the trick. For us, there are offerings of the heart that accomplish the needed repair.
- The haftarah for Shabbat HaChodesh takes precedence over that for Shabbat Rosh Chodesh.
Rabbi Billy Dreskin is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple near White Plains, New York. You can contact him at RabbiBillyDreskin@gmail.com.