Our congregation alternates between a Reconstructionist and Conservative prayerbook for our Shabbat services. While our Reconstructionist and Conservative services are essentially the same, the major differentiation is that the Reconstructionist prayerbook has made alterations to the text to conform to the values of progressive Jews today, while the Conservative prayerbook retains language familiar to the overwhelming majority of religious Jews.
An example is in the Gevurot section of the Amidah. The phrase Mechayey metim appears four times. Since we will repeat this prayer in Musaf, we will say “Mechayey metim” 8 times this morning. “Mechayey metim” means “bringing life to the dead.” Since most contemporary Jews do not believe in reincarnation, the Reconstructionists changed “Mechayey metim” to “Mechayey kol chai” – bringing life to all that lives. The Reform movement does something similar: “Mechayey hakol” – bringing life to all.
Although I am a passionate Reconstructionist, I side with the Conservative movement. As Rabbi Simcha Paull Raphael has taught us, there is rich tradition in Judaism around life after death, and those who have dabbled in Eastern religions are comfortable with the notion of rebirth. But there’s another reason I like “mechayey metim.”
Last week we had a brief snap of gorgeous spring weather, and after over a week of intense work moving our activities online and reaching out to a community struggling with a global pandemic, I allowed myself a much-needed afternoon on our land. In early spring I clear out what I can from the past year’s explosion of growth. And whether it is our beloved peonies or the swarm of intruders with unknown names, I am always impressed by the tenacity of living things. Not only does every type of flora give rise to a new generation of saplings, but even the unwelcome shrubs that I cut down to a stump last year and appeared dead for months now have new sproutlings growing out of them. Seeing life emerge from the dead like this, I recognize that “mechayey metim” is not an eschatological speculation; rather it is a description of, literallly, a “garden variety” natural phenomenon.
Life and death is a terrifying topic, certainly for us at this time. So we may not find comfort from today’s Torah reading about the sacrifice of bulls, pigeons, and sheep. There are many difficult themes in the Torah, but the roots of our faith in a perpetual round of animal sacrifice may be the strangest and most alien of all.
I found insight on this topic in a book by my friend and colleague Rabbi Maurice Harris called Leviticus: You have no idea. It contains a wonderful story leading up to the realization by a cynical teenager that animal sacrifice is actually a lot less gross than what we do in our society: to mass-slaughter animals hidden from view of those destined to eat them; now we seal their body parts in shrink wrap, and display them luridly on supermarket shelves, where the earthly remains of those once sentient beings are thumbed over and selected by shoppers casually chatting on their cell phones.
By contrast, the animals sacrificed in Leviticus are selected from herds that provide necessary sustenance to those who care for and ultimately slaughter them. These pastoral consumers have looked into the eyes of their animals, heard their squeals and shrieks. However we may be appalled by the sacrificial rituals, it is likely that it served to reconnect those who routinely kill and eat their livestock to the sacredness of life and death, to atone for the necessity of carnivorous living, to warn us of the awesome power of creation and destruction in our human hands.
In the ancient worldview, sacrifice was meant to restore balance in a world that human beings keep desecrating ever since Cain slaughtered his brother Abel. This is not to say that natural balance is not always pretty. The wolves who capture the weakest members of a caribou herd strengthen its gene pool. Spontaneous fires enable grasslands to flourish. At the same time, centuries of civilization have led to perilous imbalances in the ecosystems of a planet crying out for restitution from something like wolves or fire. As we recite in the Shema prayer, our greed and contempt for the well-being of the land inevitably lead to destruction. As our children have been warning us, we have neglected to safeguard their future. Now they need to conduct their Friday protests online.
Our duty for future generations is to commit our efforts to the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants. Our hope, our courage, our trust, and our commitment to the future will see us through this current crisis.
Although it is too early to gauge the environmental impacts of the pandemic, Stanford environmental resource economist Marshall Burke has calculated that the improved air quality around Chinese cities like Wuhan may have saved more lives than were lost there to COVID-19. And while claims of dolphins in Venice’s canals are preposterous, the lack of vehicle traffic, tourist overrun, and industrial pollution have given the air and water in the ancient city a much needed cleansing. There may be a flicker of method within the extraordinary madness of coronavirus, just enough to give us a spark of hope. We must ignite that flame of hope, confident, in the words of Valarie Kaur, that “this is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb.” That in this trying period, we can learn to be kinder, more compassionate, less shortsighted and selfish, more appreciative of this extraordinary planet and our need to care for her. When we create a caring society that commits its resources and priorities to funding medical research, investing in protective gear for all healthcare workers, and providing testing and treatment to all who need it, rich and poor alike, our sacrifices will restore life to those in the jaws of death. Just as sproutlings emerge from inert stumps, we will get through this and be better and stronger for it, keeping faith in that power of divine rightness as we pray “Baruch Atah Adonai mechayey ha’metim.”