It Takes a Community to Create Holiness — to Elevate Life and Go Beyond the Mundane

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By Rabbi Beth Janus

Parashat Shmini

Imagine preparing for a brand new job. You have dreamed of having this job. You have studied for it. You have trained with mentors.

And the day has arrived: your first day. Will you succeed? Fail? You are apprehensive, expectant and passionate.

Now, imagine your job is to serve the Holy One. And the entire Jewish people. Your name is Aaron and you have been chosen to be the first high priest of Israel. Aaron’s first day of work as high priest is where our Torah portion begins.

Moses gives Aaron precise instructions for his first day.

Aaron brings sacrifices for himself, and on behalf of the Jewish community. The people bring their animals and grain offerings and gather to witness Aaron approaching God through these intricate rituals. Aaron takes the animal blood with his finger and spreads it all over the altar. The blood of these animals represents life itself.

Once Aaron makes these sacrifices, he blesses the people. Sacrifice, in Hebrew, is korban, which literally means to draw near. Aaron offers these sacrifices so that he can draw closer to holiness, to the life force, to God and also to the community. He takes the animals and grain, which are key to surviving the desert, and presents them to God.

The korban symbolizes that he is willing to forgo, to sacrifice, in order to have intimacy and proximity to the divine. And when Aaron draws near, he receives holiness from God. He can then give back to the people by giving them a blessing. Only after he gives to the people does Aaron go into the Tent of Meeting, where he encounters God. When Aaron receives from God, he immediately comes back out and gives the people another blessing.

Aaron’s job as high priest is to make sacrifices, but the people play a crucial role as well.

The people must agree to bring offerings. Each Israelite has to draw near with their korban — a calf, ram or grain. Everyone has a part, and each part is needed in this dynamic system of korban and blessing, giving and receiving. And the ritual works! After the sacrifices, “the Presence of God appeared to all the people” (Leviticus 9:23). Aaron and the whole community reap the quintessential benefit, which is to know holiness.

The core part of the sacrificial experience is the relationship between Aaron and his community. The people give of themselves, which emboldens Aaron to also give and empowers him to bless, which is what brings holiness. Community is the only vehicle by which this happens.

Aaron can represent the community because he gathers the sacrifices from the people and because the people are present to witness his actions. It is a virtuous circle. The people give to Aaron, and Aaron gives to God and the people. And when this circle of complete giving occurs, God appears.

Today there is no job of high priest. We have no traveling desert sanctuary where we make sacrifices. But we do have community. The essence of what our people did more than 3,000 years ago still occurs today.

It takes a community to support one another when crises come. It takes a community to draw each other close when some are drifting away with despair or isolation. It takes a community to celebrate a job well done, a baby, a wedding or a new home.

And if we do this well, then we are doing a sacred dance where we all take our turns being high priest, by leading and guiding. We all share bringing the korban when we offer our gifts. We all bless others.

And the cycle starting with Aaron, the Jewish people and God continues, where we each give and we each receive in the beautiful richness of community.

It takes a community to create holiness — to elevate life. Holiness is getting beyond the mundane. Holiness is creating and maintaining a collective, and understanding that life is greater when individuals coalesce.

Aaron’s job was to touch the “blood” of life; to get to the core of our existence. Some call this God, some call it holiness or divinity, and others call it the meaning of life. Whatever you call it, it takes us all — to give and take, to inspire, to draw near and to be blessed. It takes a community.

Rabbi Beth Janus educates and conducts life cycle ceremonies in the Philadelphia community. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.

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