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D'var Torah (Vayikra)

The Spiritual Tools of Leviticus

Sometimes I think that our Biblical ancestors were a lot wiser than we give them credit for. Every year when we get to this particular biblical book filled with graphic descriptions of animal sacrifices and offerings outlining in detail such rituals as the sprinkling of blood on the altar by the priests, along with a virtual “how to” manual for slaughtering a bull or a goat or a sheep and offering it up to God in a highly ritualized drama, most readers (myself included) begin to cringe. But this week in particular I realized that perhaps those ancient priests and healers of the spirit really knew what they were doing after all. An incident this very morning brought this issue painfully home. 

A young woman came to meet with me to talk about scheduling a baby naming. She walked in with her six-month-old son whom she had adopted at birth after two years of unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant herself. As she clutched her beautiful baby in her arms she told me one of the most painful and emotionally draining stories I could ever imagine — how two years ago she had been pregnant with twins and bedridden for six entire months, only to have both of them tragically die just three weeks short of their delivery date. 

As she retold the story of the trauma of her pregnancy and their death, she cried practically non-stop for the entire hour we were together. Then, as if this excruciating trauma weren’t enough in its own right, I realized as we talked that she was wracked with personal guilt over the death of her babies even though she hadn't done anything wrong. 

The moment I probed just below the surface of her sadness, out flowed a stream of self-indictment and regret: “If I had only used a different doctor, or trusted my own instincts better, or taken better care of myself, or….” the list went on and on. My rational reassurances to the contrary, she told me that she just couldn’t stop blaming herself for this tragedy, and that every time she thought about it the tears flowed all over again. 

As I sat with her holding her hand, giving her what comfort I could and feeling wholly inadequate to really help her let go of that hot coal of guilt that burned inside of her, I actually wished for a moment that we still had a religious sacrificial cult to call upon. 

In the simplest and most straight forward of language in this week’s portion the Torah teaches us that if a person incurs guilt by any number of ways, “When he realizes his guilt in any of these matters, he shall confess that wherein he has sinned. Then he shall bring as his penalty to God (Adonai) for the sin of which he is guilty, a female from the flock, sheep or goat, as a sin offering; and the priest shall make expiation on his behalf for his sin…and he shall be forgiven.” (Leviticus 5:5 ff.).

How powerful that must have been. To have a ritual through which you can drive out the demons of guilt and personal recrimination and feel the blessed relief of forgiveness. I watched the pain of that young woman this morning, and a part of me longed for that ancient priestly power to forgive the transgressions of another and wash the guilt away. 

In a sense it isn’t really rabbis who have taken the place of the ancient priest in our contemporary society. That role has more powerfully been assumed by the psychotherapist. But still I know that our spiritual lives are somehow impoverished by our lack of sufficient modern rituals that can help us cope with the various personal traumas of our lives and lead us back from the darkness of guilt and pain into the light of forgiveness and spiritual healing. 

Indeed, perhaps creating such rituals will be one of the challenges that all of us can embrace as Judaism continues to evolve into the 21st century.

Rabbi Emeritus, Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades, California

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