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‘Without emptiness, where would we find room to grow? Without hollowness, how could we breathe?’

A ram with curling horns.

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It seems like every year, as the annual cycle of Torah reading reaches Leviticus; the third of the five books, congregational rabbis tense up. By now, we’ve finished investigating the human psyche courtesy of the rich characters that inhabit Genesis and we’ve emerged with bated breath from the adventures of the Exodus. Suddenly, our focus shifts to a book that has a central theme of — ugh — sacrifice.

Although sacrifices for ancient Jews were analogous to the prayers of today, the concept irks our contemporary sensibilities. While people brought a diversity of offerings to the Temple, including grains and first fruits, one need not be an animal-rights activist to conjure up off-putting images when hearing the term sacrifice. Since medieval times, biblical commentators have provided plausible rationale. Maimonides suggested that animal sacrifices were necessary to wean people from human sacrifice, which was rampant among neighboring tribes. This logic seems to be validated by the story of the Binding of Isaac, when Abraham’s conscience was salvaged by a command to substitute a ram for his dear child. In contrast, other scriptural glosses have emphasized a pragmatic dimension — the insistence that only kosher animals be burned on the altar created an attractive compensation package for the Temple staff, who received the leftovers as an employee perk.

A refreshing approach, however, is offered by Professor Robert Alter in his recent translation of The Hebrew Bible (Norton Press, New York). Alter advocates zooming out in order to behold an overarching concept that represents an alternative narrative arc to Leviticus. That concept is “havdalah.” For most of us, that term is synonymous with the mystical ceremony closing Shabbat, which includes a candle, wine and fragrant spices. At its core, though, havdalah is a term that connotes a division, if not an outright separation. As stars appear in the Saturday night sky, we are liturgically distinguishing the Sabbath from the ensuing work week. Alter, who emphasizes the importance of “literary coherence,” enumerates multiple distinctions that punctuate Leviticus. For instance, the geographic distinction between the Tabernacle and grounds that are not hallowed, the dietary laws that separate kosher and prohibited creatures, the isolation of those who suffer from “Tsara’at” (a cryptic dermatological disorder treated by the Cohen) and so on.

Fortunately, our world is also equipped with a counterweight to the forces of separation, a force that brings things closer together. This can be seen in the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, which is derived from the root letters Koof-Raish-Bet, which imply proximity. In this context, the korban can bring me closer to God, closer to others and maybe even close enough to confront myself. If so, korban may have attained prominence because it seductively promises bonds that enable connection. In this reading, the korban is not so much about intricate ritual but instead a mechanism to restore balance.

Nowadays, as the world adjusts to the Covid pandemic, the tension between havdalah and korban cannot be dodged. The notion of “together apart” blares from neon billboards in Times Square.But is our species wired to cope with the paradox?

We did some homework and were fascinated to learn that the word “closeness” in English is derived from the Latin “clausus,” meaning “closed” or “confined.” For many of us, the conventional wisdom dictates that becoming more thoroughly acquainted with a subject requires closeness — a close-up view. Now, during shutdown, we find ourselves craving the deep gaze into the eyes of our beloved, the holding of the hand. Yet suddenly Covid-19 is teaching us that this may be a limiting way of exploring that which we are seeking to know more deeply. What if distance can, in fact, provide a wider perspective and a more encompassing understanding? A bird’s eye view.

Perhaps we are being offered a unique opportunity to expand the way we comprehend the notion of closeness. Without emptiness, where would we find room to grow? Without hollowness, how could we breathe? The poet Khalil Gibran, in his book The Prophet writes “let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you […] as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music”. Empty space permits Love’s yearning.

Leviticus need not make us livid. The two overriding themes of Vayikra, separation and closeness, are precious, and can be leveraged to help us navigate the great paradox that has landed.

Abigail (a musician in Portland, Maine) and her father Ben (an oncologist in Jerusalem) have been studying the weekly Torah portion together since 2019 BC (Before Corona).

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