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Parashat Vayikra

03/27/2020 11:27:07 AM


      Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayikra, the start of the Book of Leviticus and its numerous laws about sacrifices. There are different types of sacrifices named in the parasha - wheat meal, various types of animals, sacrifices to expiate for sins committed intentionally or unintentionally, sacrifices for good will and devotion to God, and so on. And there are many ways to interpret these sacrifices symbolically in our modern post-Temple Judaism. We had a wonderful Torah study on Thursday about sacrifices of the heart and whether to hoard or share toilet paper in this time of crisis. 

Among everything else going on, this week also marked the anniversary for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. On March 25, 1911 a fire broke out in the Manhattan garment factory, killing almost 150 people, the vast majority of whom were Italian and Jewish young women. It was among the greatest industrial disasters in American history, and left a big mark on our labor movements. The death toll of the fire was in large part due to the terrible working conditions of the factory, including exhaustive hours for low pay and doors locking workers in during the workday, and it served as a rallying cry for unionists like Rose Schneiderman and a wake up call for many Americans. 

Judaism has never held a practice of human sacrifices (that’s what makes the whole Binding-of-Isaac story so striking), and in Reform Judaism we certainly don’t have a theology of accepting that “everything happens for a reason” or any other such excuse that allows for victim-blaming or a dismissal of the horrors of the world. But, even if senselessly terrible things happen due to the negligence of man or the randomness of nature, we can still choose to make meaning out of the grief those events leave behind. Those who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire cannot fairly be called sacrificial martyrs to the cause of ensuring we all have safe working conditions, because they weren’t given the option to embrace martyrdom. Rather, forces totally outside their control took their lives without hesitation. And yet, their senseless deaths were given meaning when the labor movement prevailed and the law came down against locking workers inside factories or warehouses in the United States. 

Despite these legal wins, labor exploitation still abounds in this country. It is evident even in the responses to the pandemic. Who has paid sick leave and who does not. Who will be allowed to still have access to health care during a global health crisis and who will not, based on their job status. Who makes comfortable salaries while being able to work from home in relative safety, and who barely scrapes by working long hours in direct contact with other humans potentially carrying this deadly virus. While we would hope for there to be no human sacrifices on the altar of medical scientific discovery, we know it is already too late for that with this crisis, and the death toll continues to climb. What we can do instead, is allow this tragedy to be an opportunity to continue to move society forward, so that more people can be safe, can have access to health care, and that all human life will be treated with the same value and seen as having inherent worth. 

May we each find ourselves protected by our own purifications, both ritual and physically cleansing, and may we be willing to offer material sacrifices so that our community remains more whole, healthy, and safe. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Sat, August 8 2020 18 Av 5780