As we move out of the book of Exodus (Shemot) and into the book of Leviticus (Vayikra), the seemingly archaic laws of korbanot, or animal sacrifices are brought to the forefront. While many of us would like to believe that we are far-removed from the seeming barbarism of much of the content of Leviticus, the current events of our world beg to differ. The parsha for the week shares its name with the book: Vayikra, meaning, “and He [God] called.” One of the specifics that “God called” is related to an oft misunderstood and maligned concept in today’s world–sin. The word for sin in Hebrew is “chet,” and it can be translated to mean “miss the mark” or “stray from the path.” When searching for a uniquely Jewish perspective on sin, I was particularly struck by the words of Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, who wrote in Moment Magazine: “G-d doesn’t need our service, nor is he ultimately injured by our misdeeds. This makes Jews conscious of the fact that all sins—things we’re not supposed to do—and mitzvot—things we are supposed to do—ultimately affect man and man alone.”
Many are still reeling from the horrific murder of 8 people in Atlanta, Georgia. Six of these people were women of Asian descent. This attack is only the latest in a monstrous series of crimes against the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community. While the AAPI community has been historically victimized, the lashon hara (literally “evil tongue”) in reference to this community has been especially rampant over the last year or so. The past administration’s repeated and relentless references to COVID-19 as “China Virus” or “Kung Flu” has certainly played a direct and major role in the uptick in crimes against the AAPI community. According to Maimonides, lashon hara can be classified as anything that, if said aloud, would cause physical or monetary damage, or cause someone to live in fear. These “harmless” nicknames for COVID-19 were anything but harmless. As Rabbi Adlerstein’s explanation of sin seems to imply, the misdeeds of human beings have directly impacted other human beings. When we sin, don’t we sin against one another? As creatures made in a Holy image, are we not disparaging G-d Him or Herself when we dabble in dangerous, or even hateful, speech and action?
Parsha Vayikra speaks of “…the uncleanness of man…” (Exodus 5:3). While the particular usage of “uncleanness” in this verse refers to the touching of a human corpse, I am left pondering what a state of “uncleanness” actually entails. Something unclean is considered impure, and impurities are not suitable for rituals. In a contemporary sense, I feel that when people are attacked for simply existing as who they are, we are seeing extreme impurity; the uncleanness of humankind. As we go about the rituals that comprise our day-to-day lives, should we be forced to maintain vigilance, to walk with one hand on a set of keys, or to simply avoid others altogether for fear of harassment and even physical violence? If our lives are the rituals, then hate and ignorance are the impurities that are not fit for the altar. The impurities of prejudice must be weeded out of ritual circulation. Perhaps “G-d called” with so many rules and regulations for offerings because we still have not figured out on our own what to offer each other as human beings. By failing to present kindness, compassion, and empathy, we offer nothing to G-d.
As Jews, it is our responsibility to stand up for our brothers and sisters in the AAPI community. Why? וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם”׃” or, “you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). I am well aware of the fact that that the individuals who make up the AAPI community are not actual “strangers” or “gerim” in the United States of America. The AAPI community is being treated as the “gerim,” or “resident aliens”; a position in which the Jew has often historically found him or herself. In an America that is headed toward a minority majority population, the powers that be will fight to keep anything resembling diversity subjugated and marginalized.
Now is the time to bring our appropriate offerings to G-d. It is time to stamp out the unclean, the impure, the evil speech that is lashon harah. While many sins can be atoned for in a Jewish sense, there are simply those that seem to be beyond teshuvah. Jewish thinking tends to categorize sin as a correctable mistake–something to be aware of and work on. However, when sins against our fellow human beings based on outward appearance and race occur; when families are torn apart due to descent, we injure one another. Perhaps we do not injure G-d, but we certainly do no justice to His image. Until we see no more unclean, impure, and sinful offerings disturbing the ritual hum of a potentially beautiful world, I refuse to view the Book of Leviticus as antiquated. We must offer one another purity in the form of kindness and simcha. We must do better, and demand better. As Mishkan T’Filah says, “…justice is our duty, and a better world our goal…”
In a world so seemingly full of “chet,” it is time to start “hitting the mark,” or at least stop missing it so badly.
And, to the AAPI community: I am an ally. I have your back.