HaMirpeset Shelanu 212: From Joseph Eskin

Please enjoy a D’var Torah this week from Rosh Tikvah 2015, Joseph Eskin. A lifelong Ramahnik and graduate of the University of Michigan with a degree in History and Education, Joseph currently teaches history and is the Student Activities Director at the Chicagoland Jewish High School in Deerfield, IL. This year, Joseph began facilitating CJHS’s Model Union team, which recently won first-place in the National High School Model United Nations, held earlier this month in New York City.  Joseph was also Rosh Tikvah in 2013 and 2014.

Reflections on Parashat Vayikra
by Joseph Eskin

When people think about the book of Vayikra, or Leviticus, which we begin reading this week, they often think about slaughtered cattle, burnt offerings, and priestly responsibilities. Some, like myself, don’t like to think about Vayikra at all, and instead flip back in their books to the more engaging stories of Bereshit and Shemot. After all, what meaning does this book of arcane sacrificial knowledge hold for people living in the world today? Reading through Vayikra this year, though, I thought about something different, something exciting, something profound – peanut butter and jelly.

One of the best activities we do at camp to teach campers about the challenges of communication involves nothing more than one counselor making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sitting on the floor with all the required materials – knife, plate, slices of bread, jars of PB&J – the counselor waits for campers to suggest instructions. “Put the peanut butter on the bread,” one camper might say, at which point the counselor will take the jar of peanut butter and place it on a slice of bread. “Press the pieces of bread together,” another camper might chime in, to which the counselor will smash the slices with such force that crumbs and goop fly in all directions. The point, everyone quickly realizes, is that communicating even the simplest information takes patience, care, and accommodation.

As Vayikra begins, God is attempting to communicate to the Israelites something a bit more complicated than how to make a sandwich: how to live lives of holiness and worship God appropriately. For a people recently freed from slavery in idol-worshipping Egypt and currently wandering aimlessly in the desert, this is a message which is difficult to internalize, as was made painfully clear a few weeks ago when the Israelites impulsively built a golden calf to worship. In his Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides, notes this challenge: “It is contrary to man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course; it would be just as if a person trained to work as a slave with mortar and bricks, or similar things, should interrupt his work, clean his hands, and at once fight with real giants” (Ch. 32). God recognizes that the Israelites cannot suddenly become dedicated and devout monotheists, that his message to his people will fall on deaf ears. Because he values his relationship with his people, though, God makes an accommodation, creating an elaborate set of sacrifice rituals to wean them off of idolatry and bring them closer to God.

The accommodations don’t stop there. When an Israelite incurs guilt upon himself, damaging his relationship with God, he is able to bring a sheep for sacrifice to help repair that relationship. If, however, he does not have the means to sacrifice a sheep, he may bring two turtledoves or pigeons. If his means are too meager even for that, a tenth of an ephah of choice flour will still do the trick (Vayikra 5:1-13). If God’s preferred option for removing guilt proves too challenging, a door is left open for another approach. If the second approach fails, there is still another, more accessible method, to reach out toward God’s forgiveness.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, comes from the root word meaning to come close. The description of sacrifices which make up the bulk of Vayikra, as convoluted and esoteric as they are, ultimately represent God’s attempt to draw nearer to his people, and the people’s attempts to draw closer to their God. At camp, too, all of the rituals and activities, from daily tefillah to chants in the Chadar Ochel to downtime in the cabin, are means to bring campers and staff closer to one another. Living in close quarters for two, four, or eight weeks, frustration and poor communication can sometimes interfere with that closeness. Sometimes it takes a ruined peanut butter and jelly sandwich to remind us of the same message that Vayikra contains: taking the extra step, trying one more way to get the message across, trying again and again to meet people where they are, can open doors to the kind of friendship and community that camp is all about.

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