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Offer Empathy

The sacrifices detailed with obsessive length in the Book of Leviticus, are about bridging the distance between human beings and God. The people offer up animals and grains, and the Torah reports God accepts these offerings. “It is a burnt offering, an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord.” (Leviticus 1) The smell of the smoke rising up from the sacrifice appears to bridge the gap between heaven and earth.

The Hebrew term for sacrifice is korban, coming from the root to draw near.

And so, it is quite striking that the opening word of this book is vayikra, to call. The book begins with the words, “And God called to Moses.” To call out suggests there is a chasm separating speaker from listener. In most other instances, God speaks (vayidaber) with Moses. Elsewhere their conversations are marked by intimacy. Their discussions appear like those between two friends. Here, God calls out. It is as if they are no longer close enough to talk. What separates them in this moment?

Why is there distance in the very moment when receiving the commandments to draw near?

Perhaps Moses is afraid. The medieval commentator, Moses Nachmanides, believes this to be the case. Moses was intimidated by the awesome grandeur of the sacrificial ceremonies. Their holiness, and perhaps all the fire, blood, and guts overwhelmed him. This suggestion seems odd. How could the person who was unafraid to commune with God on the mountaintop be afraid when approaching the Tent of Meeting’s sacrifices?

Perhaps it was because on Mount Sinai, there was no distance between God and Moses, between God and humanity. In the wilderness, the distance appears greater. The responsibility to bridge that divide, with only the tools of the everyday is fraught with worry. Finding God in the here and now is oftentimes daunting. Offering sacrifices is sometimes terrifying.

And yet, breaking down distance is our sacred task.

There are many divides now separating us. We stand apart from the earth that gives us food. We stand apart from the many places that define our lives: the synagogue, the gym, theatres, concert halls, restaurants, family members’ dining room tables, grand holiday celebrations.

We stand apart from each other. We make excuses for violence. Eight people were murdered. Women are victimized. Asians are targeted. People who work for meager wages are cast aside.

We call out from a distance.

And what is the sacrifice now demanded of us?

Empathy.

It is the one thing that can bridge any distance and traverse any divide. Empathy means transforming one’s perspective. We begin to see things through other people’s eyes and no longer through our own eyes alone. Thinking about others, and their concerns, creating room most especially for their pains, makes us feel vulnerable. Fear and terror creep into our hearts. It is easier to shut others out. It is less fearful to cast their pains aside.

Empathy means that someone else’s terror finds a place in your heart. It means that your pain, and your experiences, or these days, the places and people that used to fill your everyday lives, are not the totality of pain that fills your soul.

Empathy is a sacrifice. It is about no longer seeing the self as the center of the universe.

Offer up empathy.

That is the sacrifice we must now bring.

Be not afraid.

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