Thought for this Week on Parashat Vayikra (Liberal Judaism)

Last week, James Crumbley was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. This was not for his own crime but for his 15-year-old son’s high school shooting and murder of four students at Oxford High School in Michigan. He was convicted of having ignored his son Ethan’s mental health needs, of buying him the gun he used in the November 2021 attack that murdered those students and of refusing to engage with worrying drawings by his son, found that very morning. In a separate trial, his wife Jennifer was convicted similarly before him. Their involvement, or failure to protect and discourage the massacre their son wreaked, has been placed at their door. The sins of their son have been visited upon them. Echoes of the sins of the parents will be visited on the children up to the third and fourth generation. The idea in law of parents being responsible, is very new and it marks a landmark shift. It speaks to the weight of connections and relationships in bearing responsibility.

On Shabbat, we will open a new book of Leviticus with parashat Vayikra. Sacrifice and its minutiae of detail permeate the opening portion and indeed the whole of this book. No surprise that this book resonates less than the other four in Torah – no B’nei Mitzvah actively choose a portion from Leviticus. However, this week, this year, this moment, the notion of sacrifice offers a different reading.  There’s a list of the different kinds of offering – in all their variety. Some require animals, while others make use of mixtures of flour, grains, oil, and frankincense. The common denominator is the individual – whatever they could afford was their offering, their sacrifice.

Midrash Tanhuma, Vayikra 5 points out that the word used for a person in Leviticus 2:1 is nefesh, which we know also means “soul” or “life,” so when a person brings even an offering of flour or grain, the least costly of offerings, God responds to the gift “as if the individual had offered their own life.”

What a different way of understanding sacrifice-less about what was burned on the alter and more about who was giving it.

This allows us to see how we might extrapolate from grain and animal flesh to personal integrity and effort in sacrifce. That’s what giving can be. And the lack of it means we are dissappointing- as we saw with the Crumbley parents. Rather than just meal, guilt and burnt offerings-why shouldn’t sacrifice speak to Ethical behaviour, something that our early Liberal founders spoke so passionately about.

The haftarah chosen for this portion in the Progressive world is Isaiah 43. Isaiah is speaking to the Israelites in their exiled state in Babylon – he acknowledges that there was no scope for incense or burnt offerings, as there was no Temple, but even without those the Israelites fell into cruel and sinful behaviour.

You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings,
    nor honoured me with your sacrifices.
I have not burdened you with grain offerings
    nor wearied you with demands for incense.

 You have not bought any fragrant calamus for me,
    or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices.

But you have burdened me with your sins
    and wearied me with your offences.

It is that lack of ‘sacrifice’ that burns: that burden and weariness of sin, offence and bad behaviour. And so this can speak to us now over the millennia.

Sacrifice, the acting well for and towards others as well as ourselves, is what counts – the holding of integrity and concern. It did then and it certainly does now, whether with the parents of Ethan Crumbley or even our own behaviour – making good choices. I look forward to imbuing this book with more meaning and vividness this year.