A D’var Torah & Reflection by Eric Berman
May 27 , 2021/Category

Eric Berman, member of the CRS Board of Trustees, shares his words of Torah as he reflects on important issues in our world today.

April 21, 2021

This is not fair. 

How is it that the scheduling fates have conspired to select this darshan to speak today: in the wake of the verdict yesterday in Minneapolis? 

Preparation went out the window. With apologies and deep emotion, the following was written in haste early this morning.

This week’s parshe (Acharei Mot and K’doshim) spans Leviticus 16:1-20:27. With the Chauvin trial still raw and painful… it starts with the Day of Atonement. And it concludes with the death penalty.

It covers laws of sacrifice. Of food. Of sex offenses and homosexuality. The Golden Rule.

Great scholars have dedicated lives to just a fraction of any one of these! And Jay Kranis has allotted me a few minutes to speak. 

So let us set aside those other critical issues for now. And let us focus on atonement of sin. On cleansing ourselves. Trying to make right what went so tragically wrong in Minneapolis last year – and so often across our country… yesterday in Columbus and before that in Brooklyn Center, and Chicago and Louisville and Staten Island and so many others. 

But first, let us go to the text. We are here in the midst of Leviticus. Wallowing through the midst of all the laws concerning purity and holiness. We come upon this parshe about the death of Aaron’s sons and how he shall purify himself… what he shall wear and what he shall sacrifice…

And then suddenly, we come upon this, an introduction to a special day: the Day of Atonement. It says:

“And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no manner of work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you of all your sins; you shall be clean before the Lord. It shall be a sabbath of complete rest for you, and you shall practice self-denial; it is a law for all time.” [Leviticus, 16:29-31]

And then it details how each year the people of Israel would be cleansed of their accumulated sins through ritual sacrifice and fasting. It reads:

“This shall be to you a law for all time: to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins once a year.” [Leviticus, 16:34]

This is wonderful. It seems to imply that we can be purified of even our worst sins simply through self-denial and a Temple ceremony alone. 

Really? Is that enough? Just going through the ritual sacrifice motions?

And here, in addition to our amazing clergy team, I also rely on James Kugel and Gunther Plaut.

Clearly, the question of whether mere ritual is adequate for atonement is a troubling concept. Plaut notes that this is why the leaders of Reform Judaism replaced this chapter – the traditional Torah reading for Yom Kippur morning – with selections from Deuteronomy.

But, he continues, and this to me is foundational, the Reform leadership retained the traditional Haftarah: my single favorite piece of Jewish writing, in which the prophet Isaiah cries out:

“Behold, in the day of your fast you pursue your own affairs and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to hit with the wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high…. Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see him unclothed, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” [Isaiah, 58:3-7]

So perhaps this powerful sermon – these words of the prophet Isaiah – marked the beginning of the transformation of the Day of Atonement. 

As to the question of what we must do to atone, the prophets seem adamant that sacrificial rites alone are inadequate for atonement. The sinner must have both a change of heart AND a change of ways;

Regarding the second question – for WHOSE sins are we atoning on Yom Kippur and for WHICH sins are we atoning, note that the text reads:

“This shall be to you a law for all time: to make atonement for the Israelites for all their sins once a year.”

In other words, we are atoning for all of our communal sins.

And as we at CRS discuss the Jewish concept of “sin” – of “chait” – that is, not necessarily doing wrong but also of not quite hitting the mark.

What sins do we see in our world? Do we not still see the wickedness that Isaiah decried? Do we not still see hunger and homelessness and poverty and oppression?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

These concepts struck me yesterday.

Because yesterday’s verdict might have resonated around the world but it didn’t bring justice. We do not yet have justice.

I knew that when I read the words of Maya Harris – policy nerd and sister of the Vice President – who wrote: 

“Let’s be clear: A just verdict is not the same as justice.”

And the words of Bryan Stevenson, who wrote: 

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice.”

That verdict serves as a critical reminder that we must pursue justice, equity and peace in our communities and across our society. 

We should grieve for the Floyd family and for all those who have suffered loss – loss of loved ones, loss of trust in our institutions and loss of shalom in their lives. 

And we must resolve ourselves that our tomorrows must be better than our yesterdays.

That we as a people and a congregation of passionately dedicated individuals will continue our work for peace and for equity and – as we are commanded by the inscription on our beautiful shul – to pursue justice, true justice – “justice justice thou shalt pursue.”