Before I leave KI, I will request the library to purchase a book that is 1200 pages long, and is not likely to be read by anyone except the next rabbi and any aspiring Biblical scholars among you. I doubt if anyone will try to delve into it for b’nai mitzvah preparation. Still, the library owns volumes 2 and 3, so the set would not be complete without volume 1.
The book I am talking about is the culmination of a lifetime dedicated to the study of the sacrificial rituals in Leviticus by rabbi and preeminent Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom, who passed away in 2010. The work is an exhaustive, and frankly exhausting to read, analysis of every verse, every term, indeed every imaginable detail in Leviticus in three massive volumes. This is not reading for the faint of heart.
Fortunately, Milgrom also left us a 10-page essay called “Israel’s Sanctuary: The Priestly ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’.” Based on close reading of the text and studies of contemporaneous middle eastern practices, Milgrom concluded that the sacrifices served to purifty the sanctuary. Sinful behavior by individual Israelites created a stain on the community’s overall well-being. When inappropriate behaviors become rampant, these stains accumulate and create an aerial miasma in the sanctuary. And when the air in the sanctuary becomes too toxic, it could no longer sustain the presence of God’s Glory, which dwelt above the ark in the Holy of Holies. To quote Milgrom:
Since of course people are only human, it becomes inevitable that the pestilence of aerial miasma would accumulate far beyond the danger level. It was therefore necessary to constantly purge the sanctuary, and that was the role of the sacrifice, especially the Chattat, or purification sacrifice.
Milgrom draws an analogy with Oscar Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Grey, in which every time a rakish young man committed debaucheries and really nasty crimes, the image of Dorian in a painting of him becomes more and more repulsive and disfigured. By the end of the novel, either the real Dorian Gray or the picture of him could no longer survive. Ultimately Dorian could redeem himself only by taking his own life, which mysteriously restored the image in the painting to its original glory.
Fortunately Leviticus does not demand such extreme measures from us. Nonetheless, it is only the offerings of the Israelite community that stand a chance of eliminating enough of the aerial miasma to sustain God’s presence in the sanctuary.
We can certainly talk about the aerial miasma alluded to in Leviticus in terms of environmental devastation. Too much pollution, wanton exploitation of natural resources, and spewing of carbon and methane into the atmosphere eventually destroy the natural environment and make life for those who inhabit a particular region untenable. I’ve given that d’var Torah a number of times over the year.
This year is different. Our way of life has been sabotaged by an aerial miasma that can leave a residue on everything we touch, and poison contact with other people and the air they breathe. One can easily argue that the pandemic can be traced to human sins: inadequate funding for medical research, failure to respond to the warnings years ago, prioritizing military defense and corporate profit over human needs, waging wars that destroy lives and habitats while wasting precious resources, fostering a culture of greed, selfishness, and consumption rather than looking out for our neighbors and for the common good. You get the idea. And, as the polluted sanctuary in Leviticus becomes unable to fulfill its holy mandate, so are we no longer able to enter our synagogue, and need to worship in exile and isolation.
So what sacrifices can we make to purge the sanctuary and restore a society where we can pray in synagogues and sojourn without risk of severe coronavirus? We can start with the sacrifice of social isolation, protecting our community from contamination and slowing down incidents of new cases. We can follow executive orders and CDC guidelines. We can support the elderly with acts of kindness. We can advocate for necessary medical research, reater availability of testing for COVID-19 and protective equipment for health care providers, and safeguards for the poor and those who could lose their home or their livelihood. Rather than devolve to scapegoating, rumormongering, denial, panic, or profiteering, we can create a caring society. And in the words of Malachi, we can reconcile parents and children by listening to the cries of our offspring and bequeathing them the legacy of a green new deal.
This is not the time to succumb to fear. We need to follow the injunction in Deuteronomy, to “Choose life, that you and your offspring may live” – taking all precautions to remain healthy and avoid the spread of the contagion. At the same time, we need to muster the courage to follow the example of Jacob, to wrestle with the ominous stranger that threatens us in the night, not running away from the threat, but learning its ways, what it has come to teach us, and what it will take to vanquish it. When the sun finally rises after the dark night of global pandemic, we will must not just go on as if the whole thing never happened, but like Jacob, take the time to reflect and learn until what we have just lived through leaves us with a blessing.