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Holding Each Other Close | D'var Torah - March 27, 2020

Rabbi Allison Berry

Amar Rabbi Yitzchak...Rabbi Yitzchak taught in a Midrash (Midrash Rabbah Bereshit 39:1): There was once a man who travelled from place to place. As he made his way, he saw a castle with flames coming from many of the windows. The man said to himself: ‘How is it possible that this castle is ablaze and no one has come to extinguish the fire? Does this castle not have an owner who looks after it?’ Upon hearing these words, the owner of the building looked out and said to the man, ‘I am the owner of the castle….I will surely tend to the flames.’”

The story continues, “This was precisely like the circumstance of our forefather Abraham. Abraham opened his eyes and saw his world – metaphorically – on fire. It was filled with trouble and pain and strife. Recognizing how dire the circumstances, Abraham cried out to God: ‘Is it possible that this castle – this world -- has no guide? –-- Is there no one to look after it?’ To which the Holy One Blessed Be God responded to Abraham: ‘It is I who am the Master of the World….I will tend to the flames...and to do it - Lech L’cha! (You Go out...Go forth).....I send you!’”

Today it also feels as if the world is on fire. A virus has invaded every corner of our globe and turned it upside down. And much like that burning castle, it is not clear who is in charge. In fact, the past two weeks have been an exquisite lesson and reminder that we are not always the ones in control.

We are now two weeks into this whole Coronavirus mess, and for me at least, it already feels like a year. No one knows how long this will last, and the news seems worse and not better. I know many of you who are listening tonight are afraid you will lose your jobs. You are working to try and care for your children and live up to your many other responsibilities. Some of you are alone and isolated. I’m so glad you are here tonight, a part of this sacred community, for even a few moments.

This week, I will admit, I was not at my best. I yelled at my children. I was short with my spouse. I obsessed about the mess in my house. I felt disconnected from the relationships, the work and the people that usually bring me joy.

For many of us I suspect, life doesn’t feel exactly devoid of hope, but it has been hard to think straight and to feel optimistic about what could lie ahead.

The world is on fire, and I know I wonder - who can save us? Where is the water that can douse these flames?

Our Torah portion this week doesn’t answer all these questions, but it does provide support and sustenance, as we struggle with our current circumstance.

Parashat Vayikra, the first portion in the book of Leviticus is one of many sections of the Torah that shares in exquisite detail the rituals of sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem.

In Hebrew, the word for sacrifice is Korban. However, the English word “sacrifice” is really a poor translation. Sacrifice, as we define it means “to sustain a loss.” But the word korban means something else. It comes from a Hebrew root that means l’hitkareiv - to  “come close” or to “draw oneself near.” From this we understand that the system of bringing a Korban - a sacrifice - was deeply personal: the person bringing the sacrifice wasn’t losing or giving up anything. Instead, you offered your animal or the best of your harvest, and as you did, you drew closer to God.

In the time of Covid-19, our Torah portion’s imperative to bring korbanot - to bring sacrifices and to draw ourselves near is...just a little bit ironic. But it is also an important reminder. As the story of the burning castle illustrates, yes, it is true - we are not in control. But we are not helpless. Remember, God tells Abraham: “lech l’cha - go forth, get to work.” And in doing so, God makes it clear that we are partners in the care and tending of this world and of the people in our lives.

We have the power to choose how we will respond to this challenging new reality. In the weeks ahead, we may not be able to be physically proximate, but that does not mean we have to be distant from one another.

The bringing of korbanot - sacrifices - as a way to bring ourselves close was not about physical closeness. Leviticus and the ancient korbanot teach us about how we can l’hitkareiv, draw ourselves closer spiritually. The quality of the relationships we cultivate, the love we feel for one another, and our connection or belief in something greater than ourselves, is far more important and far more sustaining than physical proximity.  In this moment - there is so much we cannot control. But here is what we can do:

We can L’hitkareiv  - draw our friends and family near through the online groups we create.

L’hitkareiv  - We can call an old friend we haven’t spoken to in ages, and see how they are.

L’hitkareiv - We can learn together, we can pray, we can find moments for laughter and tears - we do not need to struggle alone with the trauma of this experience.

L’hitkareiv  - Tomorrow on the first day of spring, we can plant seeds in the earth and watch as the flowers bloom around us.

L’hitkareiv - We can continue to hope and to dream. We can plan for the future.

We can tend to the flames of a world on fire when we l’hitkareiv - hold each other close.

And so, on this Shabbat, in closing, I ask you to take a moment to reflect on a few simple questions.

  1. In the weeks ahead, even if you cannot be physically present, how will you be a blessing to the people in your life?
  2. In what ways will you reach out to others and l’hitkareiv - draw them close?
  3. What can you stop doing, how can you give yourself space, and what are the ways you can forgive yourself for the things you are not able to do at this moment of challenge?
     

At the end of each book of Torah, as we prepare to move to the next section of text, we share words many of you know - Hazak, hazak, v’nitchazek - Be strong, be strong and strengthen one another. At this moment, it is clear, we are reading from a new book, one we have never read from before. So how much the more so are these words that close out a chapter and begin anew relevant.

The world is on fire - but this is what we can do: We can remember the castle that was aflame and we can begin again tonight with the awareness that those flames were not flames of destruction. They were actually beacons, light-houses in the darkest of nights, calling us to Lech L’cha and l’hitkareiv, to go out, and to go forth, by drawing closer; closer to one another, and ultimately closer to God. Hazek hazek v’nitchazek

Thu, August 13 2020 23 Av 5780