Restoring a fractured world
A question has been circulating on social media about the Coronavirus quarantine:
What’s the first thing you’ll do when it’s all over?
It’s tempting to think about! But here’s alternative question to ponder: Where we will be when the trial passes? Where will be as a Jewish community? Where will be as a society?
The Coronavirus has led to extensive measures of “social distancing”. The promotion of social distancing to curb Covid-19 is an ironic twist for our times. After all, social isolation and distance is a major challenge that faces modern American society.
Consider some problems that lurk in our society, such as gun violence. Perpetrators of violence have a high tendency toward social isolation. In our modern society, social isolation is an underlying ailment. Yet, today we are faced with the prospect that to save lives, we must practice extensive social distancing!
Will today’s social distancing reinforce a problem that is already lurking? Or, will it have the opposite effect and help us realize how much we need one another?
Put another way, there is so much division in this country. Will this crisis reap a new unity that finally sews us back together? Depending on how we approach this period, we just might have the solution for a vexing problem that we face.
A Satisfying Aroma
During these weeks, the Jewish cycle takes us into a Sefer—VaYikra— that seems so far removed from our world. Yet, VaYikra is more pertinent than we might realize; it’s an ethical foundation of the Jewish people. This book contains Leviticus 19, one of the great ethical codes.
Starting from the sacrifices, the concept of Kedusha (sanctity) is the foundation of this book. How can the ancient order of animal sacrifices speak to our modern world? Take a moment and listen to how the Torah describes the very first Korban in VaYikra:
And the Kohen shall cause it all to go up in smoke on the alter, an elevation offering, a satisfying aroma unto HaShem.(VaYikra 1, 9)
A satisfying aroma.
This phrase is repeated many times in our book. What can the meaning of this possibly be? Does the Torah mean to tell us that G-d likes the smell of good BBQ? Although this is the first time that we see the phrase in VaYikra, you may have noticed the phrase before.
After the flood, Noach emerged from the Teyva (Arc) into a world that was desperate to be rebuilt. Before constructing his own home, Noach built a Mizbeyach, a place of worship. Here is how the Torah puts it:
Then Noach built an altar to HaShem….and offered burnt offerings on the altar. HaShem smelled the satisfying aroma, and G-d said in His heart, “I will not continue to curse again the ground because of man…”(Bereishit, 8, 20 – 21)
There it is again—the scent of the sacrifice. What can the significance of this be? Malbim (19th C. Commentary) probes the word Reyach (scent). He points to a connection between Reyach (scent) and Ruach (spirit). The two Hebrew words are nearly identical, but for half of a letter vav!
Why is that so?
The words are connected because their meaning is very close. Scent is, after all, an inner essence, the spirit of something. Consider the various senses of a human: sight, sound, touch and smell. Smell is the least tangible of these. It is something that is delicate, unseen. Yet, scent is powerful.
Scent and Spirit
Think back to a familiar smell in your own life. It might be the scent of your grandparent’s house or a person that you grew up with. As soon as you encounter that smell, a cascade of memories arises, and you travel back in time.
In 2014, I took a trip to Israel. I was completely in a daze when I arrived, after 30 hours of travel and changing 10 time zones. On that first morning in Jerusalem, I awoke and walked outside to find a Minyan. Suddenly it hit me. I was filled with the scent of the Jerusalem streets. I was immediately filled with the spirit another world.
Scent is an essence we don’t see, it’s a deeper spirit within. When we say that the sacrifice has a “savory scent”, the idea is that there is a deeper spiritual essence that is dedicated to G-d on the altar.
Recall that in Noach’s world before the flood, there was plenty of fracture and isolation. But while he was living on the Teyva with the animal world, Noach overcame that fracture. He immersed himself in the needs of the animal kingdom.
Now, as Noach emerges from the Teyvah, how will he rebuild the world? The very first thing that he does is dedicate a place to connect to his Creator. He dedicated that place and gave this scent—the inner spirit—to G-d.
Love Your Fellow
And so VaYikra points to a raw physical world that contains an underlying spirit. There is a spirit and holiness about the world. This Sefer proclaims that the world is filled with holiness, an idea that becomes particularly clear in one Mitzvah:
And you shall love your fellow as yourself, I am G-d.(VaYikra 19, 18)
The Ibn Ezra notes the flow of the verse, which moves from loving your fellow as yourself to “I am G-d”. The foundation of this verse that recognizing G-d. From that recognition, we come to see that we ourselves have an elevated soul. Touching our own sanctity leads us to see the sanctity of our fellow man and the whole world around us.
And so today, all of mankind is in this incredible predicament. But where are we going? Are we cascading to a time of greater isolation and separation between people? Or, are we on the verge of a time that people will embrace one another in a deeper way?
Where Are We Going?
The answer to both questions is “yes”. A crisis could bring out the worst selfish tendencies in people. On the other hand, this crisis may be exactly what our generation needs. It may help us realize a potential that we otherwise would never have known. Think about the “Greatest Generation” that came together in WWII. The greatest challenges made them the greatest generation.
In fact, in our own times, we may just be seeing the beginning of a resurgence of unity and common cause. Look no further than the urgent need for medical masks. From people in our own neighborhood, to nuns in France, to Tim Cook of Apple, folks across the globe are coming together to produce medical masks care givers need.
Many of us have witnessed viral videos of people from Petach Tikva to Boston essentially hanging out of their windows to sing together and embrace one another, albeit in a physically distant kind of way.
So at this moment, we can see the potential for our society to pivot away from isolation. We might be moving toward a time of deeper societal connection and harmony…
And that movement could mean so much on so many levels. Imagine if we return to our communal life with a deeper love and appreciation of one another. Imagine if our united Jewish community becomes a model for our greater American society.
It’s not easy. To realize this vision, we will have to find a way to bring the inner spirit forward in an enduring manner. Maybe the first thing we should do “when this is over” is find new ways to embrace one another, and desist from judging one another, even in moments when our differences are laid bare.
As we prepare for that new world, think back to Noach. Let the scent of his sacrifice fill you. From your life, the savory scent just might fill the world.