Jewish learning Repairing the Damage
Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1-5:26)
Grace Lee Boggs, a legendary Detroit community organizer and elder of movements for racial and economic justice, taught that spiritual practice is to the individual what community organizing is to the collective. I understand this to mean that the inner work we do as individuals is intricately bound to the collective growth and transformation we have to do as humans. As individuals, spiritual practice includes learning to live in right relationship with ourselves, our community, and the planet; cultivating gratitude, expressing praise and joy, connecting with our grief and with our longings, and experiencing rest and wholeness. As a collective, our work is to heal from the ways we have harmed one other and transform the systems and communal structures we live inside that have caused harm.
Much of Jewish tradition affirms the connection between our inner and our communal work. Sefer Vayikra, the book of Leviticus which we begin reading this week, particularly affirms the relationship between individual and collective accountability, inviting us to imagine and create a communal system that encourages both and recognizes that in the aftermath of harm, healing must be material and spiritual.
Sefer Vayikra recognizes that we need transformation at every level. Its primary modality is a system of ritual sacrifices. The descriptions are both gruesome and technical, but bear with me—while this unfamiliar language and imagery can be a barrier to connection, Sefer Vayikra offers us wisdom that is profoundly relevant today.
Scholar Jacob Milgrom explores the ritual sacrifices with careful attention to detail. The hattat offering is often translated as a “sin offering”—a sacrifice someone makes when they have “committed a sin.” Milgrom translates it, instead, as a “purification offering,” noting that it is “prescribed as a response to moral impurity—defined as an unintended breach of prohibitions—and to severe cases of physical impurity.” Physical impurity, here, has no connotation of moral judgment attached to it, but is a state of being unready to participate in ritual, resulting from contact with death and certain bodily fluids. As Milgrom explains, an individual becomes pure again (that’s our baseline state) by bathing (in the case of physical impurity) or through “a remorseful conscience” (in the case of ritual impurity).
That is, the purification offering does not purify the individual who offers it. So what is it needed to purify?
It purifies the collective space, embodied as the mishkan, the traveling tabernacle or dwelling place for holiness within the Israelite camp. When harm is done in a community, it affects the communal sacred atmosphere. Individual action can have a damaging impact on the collective space, and individuals are required to take action to repair the damage.
Milgrom gets more specific, following the text’s instructions for applying the blood of the purification offering. The depth to which the offering must be carried inside the mishkan reflects the depth of the damage into the collective space. If the harm was unintentional, done by an individual, the toxic contamination only affects the outer part of the mishkan. If the harm was unintentional and done by many people, it penetrates further. If the harm was intentional, it reaches the innermost part of the mishkan.
It is a powerful metaphor for the ways that systems of oppression, such as white supremacy, penetrate to the heart of our collective life, from the structures that govern our interactions, to the ways we interact, to our very thoughts and feelings. For so long in this country we have not figured out how to make a hattat offering, to reckon with the harm and repair the damage in order to clear the toxicity of white supremacy from our shared communal space.
I studied Sefer Vayikra with Rabbi Nehemia Polen, who teaches that when harm is done, in the Vayikra paradigm, the opportunity for healing is not limited to returning to the status quo, but is a chance to cultivate deeper and stronger relationships. He points to the golden calf, a profound transgression by the Israelites. Afterwards, as part of the repair, Moshe asks to see God face-to-face, and comes as close to God’s presence as he ever has. Deeper, stronger, more accountable relationship is needed after the rupture. Similarly, Rabbi Polen points to Nadav and Avihu, who will appear later in Sefer Vayikra; after they cross a boundary that needed to be protected, part of the repair comes in the form of Yom Kippur—a chance for the kohen gadol, the high priest, to enter the Holy of Holies, a chance for the whole community to deepen and strengthen our relationship with the Divine.
I invite you to think of a time you recently participated in or witnessed white supremacy in action. Setting aside the important question of material reparation (which, the Torah makes clear elsewhere, is required), what might spiritual repair look like? What might serve as a “purification offering,” an action by those who caused harm that expresses their own accountability and offers healing to the collective sacred space?
Maybe someone said something racist to you without realizing it. What would an apology sound like that recognizes the harm you experienced as well as the impact on our shared atmosphere? Maybe you read about a school district in Florida that pulled a novel about the Holocaust off its shelves, or the Florida Department of Education’s recent rejection of an Advanced Placement course in African American studies. Maybe you drove past a detention center, jail, or prison and thought about who is locked up inside just for being poor. The examples are grievously abundant, and so are the opportunities for healing and transformation. What could we do as a society that not only stops the ongoing harm but also addresses its social and structural root causes? That offers a pathway to healing for both individual and collective healing, and envisions a future that is so much better?
I wonder if Grace Lee Boggs compared community organizing to spiritual practice in order to teach us that community organizing—building collective power to transform systems that cause harm into systems that support life and healing—is spiritual. Nurturing relationships, exercising our imaginations and creativity, learning from those who have been harmed by the systems we seek to transform—that is work that engages us wholly, allowing our spiritual selves to flourish as we support the flourishing of the world around us.
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Leora Abelson is a white, Ashkenazi, genderqueer person who was ordained as a rabbi by Hebrew College in 2017 and is proud to serve as the rabbi of Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue in Jamaica Plain, MA.