Dr. Mitch Bender
D’var Torah Vayikra
March 14, 2021
Adath Antiracism Committee Community Discussion
Thank you for the honor of delivering the D’var Torah for this Adath Antiracism Committee (AAC) meeting. It has also been a privilege to be a member of the Committee and participate in its work. The Committee believes that a frank discussion of racism, both individual and structural, can lead to progress towards ending racism in both the Adath and at-large communities. The tragic events of last summer occurring in Minneapolis as well as in Pittsburgh, Poway, California, Charleston SC, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri and other locations have galvanized our community into action, with the hope of making progress towards the end of racism. In addition, Jews of color in the Adath community have openly discussed the anguish and discomfort with some of their Adath experiences. This loyal group of congregants is seeking a secure and fulfilling place in their congregation for people of color. Clearly, now is the time for both discussion and action.
My task today is to discuss this week’s parsha, Vayikra, and what it might teach us about our response to racism. Vayikra means “to call out.” Hashem calls out to Moshe in the Mishkan or Tent of the Meeting. This parsha continues with the elaboration of the laws of ritual sacrifice to Hashem and how the Kohanim are to conduct themselves during this ceremony. Through animal sacrifice and the detailed and meticulous ceremony that surrounds it, the Hebrews would be able to make expiation and atone for their sins. I must admit, however, that I had difficulty relating the text to our topic today, making progress towards ending racism.
If we define anti-racism as ACTION AND DEEDS against racist behavior, I asked myself, “what insight does Parsha Vayikra teach us about becoming anti-racists? Fortunately, Rabbi Weininger was able to help guide me towards the teaching of Rabbi Joel Pitkowsky of Congregation Beth Shalom in Teaneck, N.J. His teaching forms the framework of this D’var Torah. I want to thank both Rabbis Weininger and Pitkowsky for their guidance. Their assistance was invaluable.
The first word in today’s parsha is Vayikra. As previously mentioned, Vayikra means "to call out". Vayikra’s final letter, as written in the Torah, is the aleph and it is traditionally written by the Torah scribe with a letter smaller than the rest of the word. Why is this so, what does it mean and what can it teach us about our response to racism? One explanation from a 14th century commentator (Ba’al Haturim) is that when Moshe was acting as a scribe for writing the Torah, he did not want the reader to think that he was important enough for Hashem to have a planned conversation with him. Moshe wished to lower his profile. He therefore intended to leave off the aleph from the word Vayikra. The intention was to change the word “Vayikra” to “vayikar,” altering the sentence from “The Lord called to Moshe” to “The Lord had a chance encounter with Moshe.” Moshe, the prophet who according to the tradition, had a special relationship with Hashem and was the only prophet to “see God face to face.” Yet Moshe wished to convey to the reader his sense of humility. He becomes the role model for humility, despite his unique status.
Another commentator, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain offers another perspective on the issue of the small aleph. As previously noted, the aleph is the final letter in the word Vayikra. However, it is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the first letter of the Ten Commandments (The Decalogue). The first word of the Decalogue is anochi, and the statement is, “Anochi Adonai Elohecha” – I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt and house of bondage. Sachs opines that the diminutive aleph teaches us that Hashem’s presence is not only manifested in grand gestures (examples- parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, the Ten Plagues), but also in the small, every day, seemingly mundane events of our daily lives. The fact that we are alive is a miracle and therefore, the way we conduct ourselves on a daily basis is important. This extends to how we treat others, including people of color, people with disabilities, people with sexual orientations different from ours and those from disadvantaged groups. Ordinary, routine and seemingly unimportant daily actions can have great impact on others. Thus racism, both on an individual and structural level has a great impact on these vulnerable groups.
To be clear, structural racism refers to things like redlining, people of color paying higher mortgage rates than White people, medical disparities between Caucasians and people of color, higher incarceration rates for Blacks and Latinos and challenges for people of color in the education system. Thus, People of Color, Latinos, Native Americans, Asians, and the LGBTQ community feel, ‘less than,” excluded and believe that White people have special privilege in our society, known as White Privilege. Perhaps one remedy for this is to adopt the Moshe humility model and have White people shed their hubris, acknowledge their privilege, cease to be judgmental of those who look different from them and be respectful in their communication with members of the Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, and LGBTQ communities. The diminutive aleph in today’s parsha is serving as a teacher for us. It teaches us to act with more humility and let go of arrogance and insensitivity. It reminds us that our daily actions and language have profound impact on others, particularly with the more vulnerable groups.
As Hashem called out to Moshe in the Mishkan, Parsha Vayikra calls out to us to address racism both in our congregation and community at large. Our response should include humility, appreciation for all the blessings in our daily lives, compassion for those who are not yet liberated, and ACTION toward ending racism and increasing opportunity for everyone. We Jews understand the bitter taste and malevolence of racism and oppression and we are reminded of this at every Seder we attend. We have been liberated- now, it is our obligation to help liberate those facing racism. The Torah is exhorting us to take action. We can do this. Hashem does not suggest that we pursue justice, but rather demands it in the phrase "Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof". We have taken action and supported the oppressed before- It is in our spiritual DNA, and together, we can make progress in helping to end racism.
What changes and personal sacrifice are you committed to making in your daily life this year? What will you reflect upon not only at Yom Kippur, but next year, 5782 when we read this Parsha anew?
For more information visit Adath Antiracism Committee webpage at https://www.adathjeshurun.org/antiracism
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