These past couple of weeks have felt like a microcosm of the world gone mad. The murderous rampage in Afghanistan, the murder of Trayvon Martin, the shooting of Muslim soldiers in Toulouse France, followed by the shooting at the nearby yeshiva, that resulted in the deaths of one of their teachers, a rabbi, two of his children, and another little girl. Sam told me it feels to him like we are not much better than the barbarians we are descended from.
Earlier this week, I spoke, as part of the pulpit exchange that will bring Rev. Scott Clark to speak here next Friday, at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, on their Hebrew Bible reading of the week, Jeremiah 31:31-4. It is about the covenant God would make with us so that we could return from exile. God would plant within us God’s torah so that we would behave naturally good.
I managed to leave out of my talk there my asides as I read this – something along the lines of “well, that didn’t work so well.” and “so much for that.” It’s not like we are, based on the evidence, acting like we have God’s torah embedded in our hearts.
Then, on Monday, David Brooks, the New York Times columnist whose social commentary I find thought provoking, wrote about people who kill. His primary points, or at least the ones that fed my own thinking this week, were that it is likely that most of us have wells of compassion dwelling side by side with the generally latent propensity for violence, and that people who kill “often live in situations that weaken sympathy and restraints.” The real question he asks is not what makes people kill, but what keeps us from doing it.
Which brings us to this week’s torah portion, Vayikra, the first portion in the Book of Leviticus, right in the middle of the Torah. The portion brings us to the priestly section of the torah, where we learn in overwhelming detail. We learn about the korban, the offering that brings us close, k’rov, to God. There are korbanim for all sorts of issues. To express gratitude, to make that daily attempt to bring holiness into your life, to acknowledge a holy day and to make up for something we’ve done wrong.
Korban, as I said, comes from the word k’rov, to draw near. It is also about sacrifice, about giving up something of value to you to make that connection. The whole sacrificial system could be said to be about teaching us to give to make connections. Rabbi Janet Marder noted in her commentary in the Women’s Torah Commentary for this parasha that the sacrificial system could also be seen as a “sublimation of aggression” that transmuted violence into something higher: that “it is God re-shaping a destructive human drive into productive, creative energy.” By bringing that valuable possession, and giving it over to God, willingly, the worshiper learned to overcome narcissism and greed. While animal blood was sprinkled around the altar, in some ways in substitution for not shedding human blood; training us to restrain what David Brooks might describe as our innate savagery.
Rabbi Marder seems to be dovetailing with Maimonides (the brilliant 12th Century thinker), whose Guide for the Perplexed (Part III, Chapter 27) defined the purpose of the Torah as both promoting of the soul and the body:
The well-being of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity… The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state.
Rambam might have been talking about this parasha. That we do not do everyone of us as we please. Because if we did, this might lead to violence. Maimonides and the torah seem to have a clear understanding or belief that we are violent if left to our own devices.
So how DO we control our violent impulses?
My chiropractor described his methods to me yesterday: he has a wood pile that he chops over the course of the winter. The skiing down the slopes. The fishing for salmon…
The Torah offers its own solutions: the sacrificial system, and the laws to teach us to live humbly, live in awe of the divinity around us and walk in the paths of holiness. All the laws we have are to help us take what Abraham Joshua Heschel said we need – a leap of action. The doing, the willing sacrifice, the keeping of limits in our lives: those are all ways. The sacrifices are all to be with our hearts turned toward heaven, with intention, with kavvanah. Not the uttering of meaningless words, or rote repetition, but with the intention of connecting.
To me, it’s about finding the spiritual practice – whether it’s on fresh powder or in prayer or in service to the community… as my teacher, Rabbi Mel Gottlieb tells us, any way is a way, if you make it a way. Commentary on that verse in Jeremiah about God implanting God’s torah notes that God implanted it ON our hearts, not in our hearts, because we had to take the step to open our hearts enough to accept the teachings… I pray that we – and the whole world – finds their – our way to a spiritual practice that helps us keep our violent impulses in check. May it be so.