Al Arakib and the Boundaries of Holiness
A D'var Torah for Parshat Tzav 2012/5772 by Marisa James, T'ruah (Formerly Rabbis for Human Rights-North America)'s Rabbinical Student Fellow in Israel
It may sound crazy, but I love reading the book of Leviticus, with its endlessly detailed lists of how the Temple priests and Levites should behave and dress and offer sacrifices. We began reading it last week, and as always I love the drama of it all – Moses dressing his brother Aaron and his sons in embroidered robes and jeweled ornaments, physically placing on them the symbols of their authority.
But the Temple was destroyed, and the authority of the priestly class is now in our hands. The rabbis who wrote the Mishna transferred that authority to us, and it's not always comfortable to be reminded that our behavior is supposed to be a reflection of the carefully described holinesses of Leviticus.
As the T'ruah Rabbinical Student Fellow in Israel, I've been spending much of my year planning trips that highlight the places where no authority is working to keep things holy. These are difficult places to be. This week we'll be in the Negev, meeting with Bedouin citizens of Israel whose houses have been repeatedly demolished by the government, whose ownership of their land is denied, whose lives have been taken over by endless court cases.
We sometimes hear about Israeli land and border disputes in the news; these borders are spaces of heightened everything, except, perhaps, of a heightened awareness of holiness.
We no longer use the rules in Leviticus exactly as they are written. Instead, rules about sacrifices became rules about what we eat. Rules about the sacrifices on the altar were transformed into rules about the food on our tables. But rules about how to establish holy boundaries mostly disappeared once Jews were not in control of Jerusalem and the Temple – and those are the rules we need most now.
The Mishna didn't create civil society, but it did transfer the authority and responsibility to maintain holiness to us. We no longer rely on a priestly class to accept our offerings to expiate our sins, but we do rely on democratic governments and their systems to recognize the boundaries between what is ours and what is our neighbor's. And when these things don't happen as they should, we don't rely on a priestly class to support the right of Bedouin citizens of Israel to have their cities recognized – we speak out ourselves about the injustice, and work to correct it.
On this Shabbat haGadol, the Shabbat before Passover, we read in Leviticus about the instruction that Moses gives to Aaron and his sons, and his ordination of them in the view of the whole community. At the end of our weekly reading, Aaron and his sons have been prepared for their new role as guardians of the holiness of the community.
This week, the RHR rabbinical student group will travel to Al Arakib in the Negev, to hear from people whose homes have been destroyed dozens of times. May each of us feel that we are standing before Moses, receiving authority to speak about this situation, and to contribute to the work of restoring holiness to the unrecognized borders of Al Arakib.