Spring Freshness

Spring is in the air this week: the sun is out today, and daffodils and cherry trees are in full bloom here in Seattle. This past weekend, we welcomed the Hebrew month of Nissan (technically the first month of the Hebrew calendar!) and for the last few evenings, I watched the Nissan moon's beautiful sliver of a crescent set over Puget Sound.

Spring is in the air this week: the sun is out today, and daffodils and cherry trees are in full bloom here in Seattle. This past weekend, we welcomed the Hebrew month of Nissan (technically the first month of the Hebrew calendar!) and for the last few evenings, I watched the Nissan moon's beautiful sliver of a crescent set over Puget Sound.

A similar feeling of freshness, newness and renewal is also present as we read Parashat Vayikra this week. First, this sense of possibility stems from the fact that we are embarking on a new book of the Torah (Leviticus). And second, the many sacrificial offerings described in this parasha promise that a fresh start is always possible.

Animal sacrifices feel quite removed from our religious experiences today; however, the human impulses behind the sacrificial system -- the desire to draw close, to overcome negative actions and stuck-ness, and to achieve a fresh start -- ring true, eternally.

Rabbinic commentaries pick up on this theme, that the sacrifices of Vayikra reflect core human needs. Midrash Vayikra Rabbah focuses in on the language of "adam ki yakriv" ("a person who offers...," Leviticus 1:2), noting that the word "adam" hearkens back to the creation story and the first Adam, ancestor of all humanity. Another midrash from the same collections points to "v'nefesh ki takriv korban mincha ladonai," "an individual who brings a grain offering before the Lord" (Leviticus 2:1), reading the juxtaposition between "nefesh" (which is translated "individual" but literally also means "soul") and "mincha" ("grain") as teaching that -- whether a person brought an expensive animal to sacrifice or a modest fistful of grain -- God credits all of them as if they had offered their own souls. In other words, although the Torah portion is focused more narrowly on the technical details of how the kohanim (Aaron and his descendents) carried out animal sacrifices for the Israelite community, our Jewish interpretive tradition pushes us to pay attention to the universal human need behind the sacrifices: that is, the ability to clean the slate and begin anew.

In the Judaism we practice today, prayer has replaced the sacrificial system; rather than bringing offerings from our herds and flocks, or turtledoves or pigeons, we attempt to "incline our hearts in the right direction." But, we are every bit as much in need of renewal and a clean start as our ancestors were. This time of year, too, we are always preparing -- through spring cleaning and purging chametz -- for Passover and the new beginning it represents. And finally, this year in particular, the theme resonates because we find ourselves in yet another preparatory process, as we ready ourselves to emerge -- slowly and hopefully soon -- from our Covid cocoons.

Without the sacrificial system now, we rely on prayer, on language, on thoughts and intentions to help cleanse and renew us. For me, sometimes this takes the form of traditional prayer vocabulary... for example, this past Saturday night, Yona and I tuned in virtually to Sunday morning prayers from Jerusalem, singing the words of the Hallel Psalms along with the Women of the Wall. (This incredible new opportunity is one I do not take for granted!) Sometimes, prayers are offered up with fewer words. Every time I see a photo or hear about another person receiving a Covid vaccine, I say "halleluyah" to myself... the simplest prayer: an expression of gratitude, wonder, and relief, all in a single word.

This kind of prayer-ful intent makes it possible for every small moment to feel like a new beginning. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish expresses this directing-of-thought better than I possibly could, in his poem "Think of Others":

As you prepare your breakfast, think of others
(do not forget the pigeon's food).
As you conduct your wars, think of others
(do not forget those who seek peace).
As you pay your water bill, think of others
(those who are nursed by clouds).
As you return home, to your home, think of others
(do not forget the people of the camps).
As you sleep and count the stars, think of others
(those who have nowhere to sleep).
As you liberate yourself in metaphor, think of others
(those who have lost the right to speak).
As you think of others far away, think of yourself
(say: "If only I were a candle in the dark").

Human beings err, both individually and societally, and we need opportunities to correct course and recalibrate, to re-start from a place of purity. This human cycle is as true as the seasonal cycles that our natural world offers us. This time of year, Vayikra reminds us that we can take agency -- each and every day, in ways both large and small -- as we seek to begin anew, with spring freshness in our step.

Wishing you a sweet month of Nissan,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum