This post is a sermon which I delivered in 2018. It was the only sermon I have ever given in which a round of applause interrupted the delivery- and, as you will see, it was not directed at the rabbi. The words I wrote and spoke then are even more critical and urgent today as three years has not brought any of the changes that must occur in this nation. I dedicate this sermon to the memory of the 4 students who were killed in Oxford, Michigan last week and to all of those who were wounded and to the families and close friends of all who were affected by this terrible tragedy. When will we learn?
SERMON FOR PARASHAT VAYIKRA MARCH 17, 2018
Rabbi Robert Dobrusin
And so, we begin the book of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus.
The first half of the book contains, in so many ways, too much information about a tradition whose time passed centuries ago. One might ask: why do we need so much detail about the sacrificial tradition?
It is a legitimate question. Even though so many of our traditions have their roots in the sacrificial system: the Ner Tamid -the Eternal light- the Musaf service, the shankbone on the Seder plate just to name a few, we still don’t seem to need to read all these details.
And yet, we read them because they are part of our Torah and, in fact, despite the archaic details, the book holds a unique place in our tradition. It is well known that from Talmudic times through to today in some circles that young children began the study of Torah with the book of Leviticus. They didn’t start from Bereshit, from creation, but from Vayikra, from Leviticus.
One Talmudic rabbi offers an answer. Rav Assi said: “Surely children begin with Vayikra because children are pure and the sacrifices are pure, therefore let the young children come in purity to study purity.”
On a simplest level, I understand Rav Assi as saying that there is a childlike element to the sacrificial system which children can best understand: “I will give you something if you will be my friend”.
But, many understand him as saying something deeper. I read a quotation online attributed to Rabbi Ari Israel who wrote: “Youth, who represent our past, present and future are first taught the book of purity and spirituality. Children, filled with optimism, can readily look at the world with hope. They start out sans any preconceived biases. God is pure. Children are pure. Leviticus is pure. Let them all find each other and holiness can spring forth.”
And so, according to this interpretation, the children understand more than the adults because, in their naïve optimism, they can see further or more deeply.
This is a beautiful thought. It is truly beautiful.
I don’t know when Rabbi Israel wrote this but I assume it was not recently.
I say that because our children today are not filled with optimism. They have seen too much in their young lives. They have read too many stories. They have seen too many news reports. They are not naïve. They know quite a bit and they don’t have confidence that their parents and grandparents, no matter how good our intentions, no matter how much we love them, have done enough to stem the horrible tide that has taken the lives of so many of their contemporaries.
And so, they closed their books and took to the street to say to us that their time of innocence and hope has been threatened and that they must be the ones to move our nation to open a new book. We must open a book which is not filled with violence, one which tells us to open our eyes to suffering and make wise decisions now, a book which seeks holiness and wholeness in a nation by doing all we can to putting an end to the horrendous plague of gun violence.
And, they have something to say to all of us.
Far from being naïve, these young people are saying to each and every one of us, that we are the naïve ones. We have sacrificed our moral compass to political expediency. We are guilty of allowing endless political squabbles focusing on technicalities to drag on interminably while more die.
I know the problem is too big to solve with good will alone. I know the epidemic won’t be stopped with catchy slogans or symbolic actions.
But, the young people know that too.
They know that walking out of school won’t solve the problem. But, they are telling us all loudly and clearly that, for their sakes, in memory of the victims and in the name of everyone whose future lies ahead: Dayenu. It’s enough. It’s time to act.
It is long since time to open that new book. And, far from telling our children to get out the way, it is time to let our children lead us to do what we, the “responsible” ones, need to do.
I’d like to ask all the young people here who walked out of class this past Wednesday and those who couldn’t do so but supported those who did to stand up so that we can recognize you and thank you. (A spontaneous burst of applause from the congregation as many middle school and high school students stood up.)
Thank God, you’ll be voting in a few short years.
More than saying thank you, we promise you to your face that we respect you, we hear you and we will act.
May you go from strength to strength and teach us what we must learn.