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Them’s the Conditions that Prevail

March 27, 2020

This week’s sermon on parashat Vayikra.

When I used to call my grandmother at her assisted living facility, she had a couple of catch-phrases. If I asked her, “What’s new?” she would chuckle, “Well, there’s nothing NEW here!” Talking about the comforts she begrudgingly enjoyed at the facility, she would admonish me, “Save your money!” And when she was ready to get off the phone, she would often say, “Well, them’s the conditions that prevail!”

This last one, as it turns out, is a line from the performer Jimmy “The Schnozz” Durante, who was a popular singer, actor, and comedian in the mid-twentieth century.

This phrase comes to mind navigate this wilderness that is our new normal. We are self-quarantining, home-schooling, telecommuting, and social distancing. We are sanitizing and disinfecting, stockpiling, spring-cleaning, and binge-watching. We are simultaneously bored and overwhelmed, isolated and desperate for time alone. We are disappointed in all that we’ve had to cancel or postpone or modify. We are stir-crazy, anxious, and afraid. The recommendations for fighting this pandemic change every day. We don’t know how long this situation is going to last. As Merle Salkin and several others have told me, our Passover seder has been delayed by a plague. Them’s the conditions that prevail.

So while I rarely say this, it’s a good time to be entering the priestly book of Leviticus. Because Leviticus is all about imposing order onto chaos.

Last week, we finished the book of Exodus with a giant building project, the construction of the mishkan. It almost seemed as if we are enlisted into such a big project in order to keep us busy while we roam the wilderness, and to take our minds off the uncertainty of the conditions that prevail.

Now that that project is complete, the Israelites enter into their new normal, in this case making highly-regulated offerings of livestock and produce as part of a sacrificial cult. Parashat Vayikra leads us through three kinds of basic, regular sacrifices: olah (burnt offering), mincha (meal offering), and sh’lamim (well-being offering, from shalom or “wholeness”). Then we learn about two sacrifices for situations that are hopefully less-than-regular: the chatat (sin offering) and the asham (reparation offering). Both of these words now appear in our High Holy Day liturgy as words for wrongdoing. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi refers to them as “offerings to restore order” when religious or social norms have been breached (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 570).

And this is only the beginning. The priestly authors of this book spill chapters and chapters of ink on how exactly to perform these sacrifices and in what circumstances. It is difficult for us to see the relevance of such procedures in modern times. This is not how we would want to worship God—or honestly, spend our days—today. Writer Sarah Hurwitz suggests that we stand to gain a lot more from reading these texts as descriptive rather than prescriptive. Rather than looking at what these texts are telling us to do now, we can use them to try to understand what need these rituals were meant to fulfill for the Israelites then. Looking closer, we might find that we are not so different from our sacrificing ancestors after all. We also yearn to impose order onto chaos.

Rabbi Shai Held points out that God doesn’t create the world out of nothing. Rather, God starts with a world that is tohu va-vohu (unformed and void). God speaks and the elements separate and become distinct. In seven days, that which was chaotic is now contained within the divine order. That is where we started, and that is, often, the homeostasis we would like so much to return to.

Rabbi Held writes: “It is perhaps tempting for many of us to adopt a condescending approach to all this preoccupation with order. We may imagine that we have moved beyond the kind of anxiety that seems at least partly to underlie Leviticus’s manifold legislation, and congratulate ourselves for our willingness to embrace life’s messiness….Leviticus presents another, alternate reality to inhabit. Worship in the mishkan is ‘intended [as] a counterworld to Israel’s lived experience, which is dangerous and disordered. The counterworld offered in the tabernacle holds out the gift of a well-ordered, joy-filled, and peace-generating creation’ …. ‘Who among us does not yearn for that one place, however small and difficult to find, that invites us to believe the ‘very good’ world God created and the world in which we scratch out our frail existence are one and the same?’” (The Heart of Torah, Volume 2, pp. 7-8).

We no longer have the mishkan or the sacrificial cult. But we do share our ancestors desire to impose order onto chaos. And that is what we are being called to do right now. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve had a slight uptick of participation in our Shabbat experiences. One of the great gifts of living a Jewish life is that it imposes order on our days and gives shape to time. One could, theoretically, schedule one’s entire day around the various Jewish rituals that are available to us. But at the very least, we have Shabbat as our touchstone, a palace in time that we can return to, week after week, and find our community assembled there.

How else do we impose order on this chaos? Certainly the “stay-at-home” orders and handwashing precautions are a part of imposing order on this pandemic. But we also need to impose order on the chaos of the conditions that prevail.

Journalist Katherine Rosman suggests that each day we must do three things: “Set goals, find joy, and call a friend.” Like the Israelites, we need projects, albeit probably smaller ones than we imagined before the pandemic, to keep us moving forward as we navigate the uncertainty of our wilderness. But we also need to take time for the little daily pleasures that make life worthwhile: the good book, the cup of tea, the long walk; the favorite song or the silly television show.

Most importantly, we need to connect with each other. Certainly, it is important to check in on vulnerable populations and make sure their physical needs are met. But everyone, regardless of their situation, needs human connection right now. Maybe it can’t be a hug or a visit or a home-cooked meal. But it can be a phone call, an email, or a video-chat.

Whether it is the sacrificial cult or our modern Shabbat service, our religion is very much about imposing order on our chaotic world. But the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, can also be instructive for us. Korban comes from the same root as the word karov, to draw near. Because no matter what medium we use, our goal is to draw closer to God and to one another. And now, in these new conditions that prevail, we are being called upon to draw near to one another in new ways, and to help each other fashion a life rooted in order, joy, and peace.

Or, as Jimmy Durante once sang:

It’s so important to
Make someone happy,
Make just one someone happy;

Make just one heart the heart you sing to.
One smile that cheers you,
One face that lights when it nears you,
One girl you’re ev’rything to.

Fame if you win it,
Comes and goes in a minute.
Where’s the real stuff in life to cling to?
Love is the answer,
Someone to love is the answer.
Once you’ve found her, build your world around her.

Make someone happy,
Make just one someone happy,
And you will be happy, too.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz