This year, we enter the season of spring (March 20-June 20, 2021) on Shabbat Vayikra.
This year, we move from winter into springtime just as we emerge from our quarantine cocoons and, after nesting for a year, begin anew the third book of the Torah: Leviticus, or in Hebrew, Vayikra, which means “and God Called.”
Significantly, as we take our first tentative steps into a future beyond pandemic, we look to the first words of this book of Levitical law much as did the young school children who began their studies in the classic cheder (one-room Jewish schoolhouse) of Eastern Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries with just this Torah text, the first words of Leviticus. That innocent school children would be introduced to a lifetime of Jewish study by way of learning the technical rules of priestly service (as opposed to the engaging tales of Genesis) seems an odd juxtaposition. After all, the details of the sacrificial cult aren’t the most engaging of material. But as Rabbi Assi teaches in the Midrash, “The sacrifices are pure just as our children are pure. Let those who are pure occupy themselves with the same.”
This year, with a similar innocence and purity as possessed by children, we too re-enter a new world of discovery. The post-COVID world, we may well find, is at once familiar and altogether different. In the words of presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan, “human habit[s] have been broken” and, to function going forward, we will have to learn both new habits and novel ways of being together.
What to do? Where to start? Jewish tradition suggests the words, rhythms and themes of the Book of Leviticus are a good place to begin. The sacrifices’ purity, in the minds of the Rabbis, was intrinsic to their ability to facilitate communication with God. Insofar as the sacrifices are known in Hebrew as korbonote, a word which suggests proximity and drawing close, joining together in a common enterprise seems a reasonable place to take up our work. After all, just as young children need to be reassured their peers share not just their trepidation and fear, but their trust in the future as well, so too it is with us.
Consider: Just as the sacrifices described in Vayikra were once the means by which Jews felt bonded as a community and connected to God, so shall our bonds of connection be strengthened by our revisiting the rules dedicated to communal Jewish service once more. After all, our tradition is: When faced with new beginnings, we do our best when we unite in common cause and focus on korbonote — pulling together for greater outcomes.
And so, as together we begin to step out from our pandemic isolation, and as together we enter these first days of spring 2021, let us at once acknowledge the uncertainty and the possibilities with which we live and, too, let us affirm the call of Vayikra.
Truly, it is time for the Jews of our community to embrace and to hold one another close.
And now, as eager classmates all, together let us learn and discover what that means… PJC
Rabbi Aaron Bisno is senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.