Thursday, March 30, 2017

Giving Up and Gaining Meaning

Today marks the beginning of my eighth year writing Torah Thoughts. During these seven years we have never missed a week. Whether it was a vacation, or even a hurricane, Torah has persevered. Our lives are punctuated by this weekly reading. Our lives gain meaning through the discipline of Torah study.

This project is an affirmation that content is paramount. In an age dominated by 140 character outbursts, Torah comes as a relief. It also comes as a reminder. Content sustains us. Reading nurtures us. Torah must never be relegated to the mere chanting of its verses. This learning discipline comes to teach us.

Words matter. Torah is intended to be discussed and studied. Its words, and verses, and portions are meant to be pored over.

Seven years ago, with the opening portion of Leviticus, Vayikra, we began this project. Perhaps it would have been better if we started with the stories of Genesis or the drama of Exodus. In those books the import of Torah is clear. We often find ourselves in the achievements of Abraham. We often discover meaning in the struggles of a newly freed people.

Instead we began with sacrifices. We began with the blood of animal sacrifices and the smoke of burnt offerings. How curious that we started our journey reading about stuff we no longer do. We opened our holy book to discover the killing of animals and the sprinkling of blood on the altar. Pretty gross if you asked me. Pretty foreign if you asked just about anyone. And yet the importance of studying Torah, and wresting meaning from its pages, becomes more apparent.

Its meaning is not found in its literal words.

How could it be when there is so much about priests and sacrificial offerings? We believe there has to be something for us learn even in a portion about laws we no longer do. Otherwise why keep reading Torah. Why keep reading every page of this book year in and year out. Why not skip the portions that we find unedifying? Why not focus on Joseph? Why not dwell on the Ten Commandments? We do not. We cannot.

Torah is also about challenge. It is about struggle.

During good times and bad we must draw from the wellspring of Torah. Often this requires stubbornness. The meaning is not always apparent. The import is not always clear. We must turn it. We must decipher it. We must open the Torah anew each and every year. We don’t get to pick the reading. We don’t get to skip those we don’t like. We must open our book to what is given to us—on this day, in this week.

We turn to Leviticus and its sacrifices.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice is korban. It comes from karov, meaning to draw near. The ancients believed animal sacrifices were about how you get close to God. The term for one of the sacrifices, the burnt offering is olah, meaning to go up. This is because the smoke ascended to heaven.

While I do not believe that the sprinkling of blood or the barbecuing of animals on the altar might help us draw nearer to God, I share my ancestors’ desire. My question is their intent. How do we draw closer to God?

When you offered an animal for sacrifice it could not be any animal. It had to be the best animal, an animal without blemish. You had to give up something that was valued and prized. Perhaps that is how we can draw closer to God. We must give up something we love. We must give up something of value.

Granted this idea can be taken to an extreme. And that is exactly what ascetics do. They give up everything to get closer to God. Giving up everything is decidedly un-Jewish (which is why we don’t have an ascetic tradition), but giving up something, sacrificing something, can bring us closer to God and those we love.

We must make sacrifices in order to gain holiness. This is the import of Leviticus.

We live, however, an age when this notion of sacrifice has fallen out of favor. Perhaps we require it once again. Perhaps we cannot draw near to anything, or anyone, or most especially God, without giving up something. It is more about giving than getting. And in the giving (up) we often achieve the getting.

To sacrifice does not mean to lose but instead to gain. #ThrowbackThursday.

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