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Rabbi's Week in Review - 3/20/2023

03/20/2023 03:26:17 PM


Beginning the Book of Vayikra/Leviticus in our Written Torah, we are confronted with what is seemingly the least relevant discussion relative to our contemporary sensibility.  Although there are those within the Jewish world who look forward to the restoration of the Temple in Jerusalem and the return of the sacrificial cult, no one I know is lining up to bring back, much less perform, animal sacrifice. 

Questions do arise, however, that inform our present-day behavior. Three categories of sacrificial offerings are considered a response to “sins,” a means to alleviate guilt. If nothing else, the idea of committing a sin is a loaded term (thus, putting the word sin in quotation marks). 

Accusing someone of committing a sin or, more aptly put, of being a sinner is often used to frame a relationship between the one being judged and the one doing the judging. There is a dynamic that plays out as an abuse of power — those in a position of power demeaning those in a relatively powerless position.

Yet while we can (and should) disapprove of animal sacrifice as a means to a better end, engaging in an act that makes us more mindful of our behavior and providing a path to both alleviate guilt and lead to better behavior can be of enormous benefit.  Maybe the place to start in finding a better process is to frame wrong or undesirable behavior as something other than sin.

One of the most cited mitzvahs/commandments in our Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself, which suggests the idea of abstaining from behavior that is hurtful or harmful to others. The idea of avoiding behavior that harms others, either physically or emotionally, seems obvious. Yet we are witnessing so much behavior that does harm to others, motivated solely by greed for more power.

One other aspect of framing undesirable behavior: what is harmful versus what some would describe as sinful. Within the context of the sacrificial cult, there is conduct that is arguably not harmful to others but might include a failure to observe proscribed ritual —  sins against G-d.  

While there is wide divergence in the Jewish world as to the obligatory nature of ritual observance, or what G-d expects from us, there is value in ritual observance. We connect to one another through ritual, we mark time and place as sacred via ritual, and honor our history through ritual.

With all that in mind, when it comes to ritual observance, we can find an alternative standard of behavior other than sin; that is, looking as to whether behavior that, while not harming others, can be harmful to ourselves. We can look at actions in which we voluntarily put our physical or emotional health at risk, or refrain from conduct by which we could benefit.

Let us not avoid an opportunity for self-improvement by succumbing to evaluating behavior based on whether it comprises sin. Rather, let us seek out behavior that is truly beneficial, first to others and then to ourselves, and seek to avoid what is harmful to others and then to ourselves.

Tue, May 30 2023 10 Sivan 5783