When the Community Sins

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Parshat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26)

By Rabbi Daniel Plotkin

I expected to write this while sitting in my office, interrupted by colleagues or parents of my students asking about the next program. Instead, I write this from my own home. As we settle into new routines we hope won’t become routine, the questions of how we handle this situation and why we are in it remain.

Much has been written about errors of our politicians; this is not the first time nor will it be the last that the government didn’t know how to handle a situation. This time, however, it feels different because we all are paying the price. In previous pandemics, we managed to get by without the social distancing. Were I a public health expert, I might explore why this one is different, but I’m an educator and a rabbi.

Therefore, I look to our sacred texts for some answers. Our weekly parshah of Vayikra, the opening chapters of Leviticus, provides us with some insight. This parshah is often glossed over in our modern day as it is filled with the details of ritual sacrifice.

Chapter four, in particular, stands out in our current situation. In verse 13, it states, “If it is the community leadership of Israel that has erred and the matter escapes notice of the congregation …” This framing is significant. It’s not just that the leadership has erred, but it is that the matter escapes the notice of the congregation. The error (or violation of religious law in the biblical context) is not only the responsibility of the leadership, but of the whole community.

This pandemic is showing us where there are not just flaws in our leadership but in the very systems that we have created and sustain. The necessity to pass emergency legislation to allow sick people not to lose pay in the service industry shows an injustice that was already present. The need to specify that testing will be free of charge exposes the basic inequality of our medical system. The widespread disregard of the recommendations to engage in social distancing shows a callous disregard for the health and safety of those most vulnerable.

This pandemic will pass at some point. But just as there was atonement provided for when the community sinned in the Book of Leviticus through the rituals of sacrifice, we have that ability to atone as well today. Our sacrifice won’t be animals or wheat or oil, but it will be some of what those represent — wealth and comfort. When we seek to build a world and a nation that is more just for all its inhabitants, it takes some communal sacrifice.

Rabbi Daniel Plotkin is rabbi-educator at Temple Isaiah.

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