05 May Beneath Our Own Two Feet: Corona Diary Week 7
Discussing the laws of sacrifices, Parshat Emor enumerates a very limited class of animals which are acceptable for religious ceremonies in the Beit Hamikdash. Animal sacrifices in the Temple were offered exclusively from oxen sheep or goats- not exactly a colorful or exciting group of animals!! More “sensational” or exotic animals would certainly lend more drama to the “sacrifice experience”. Imagine the powerful scene of a ferocious sabre-tooth tiger being tugged into the Temple and offered to G-d as a demonstration of raging religious devotion. Likewise, imagine the drama of hauling a mammoth hump back whale thousands of miles to the seaside ports of Israel and subsequently towing it to Jerusalem as a sign of our untiring devotion to G-d. Somehow, the extremely limited list of oxen, sheep and goats feels very boring and extremely lackluster. Why are our choices for sacrifices so humdrum? The Midrash elaborates that religious ceremonies are conducted solely with domesticated animals. Even though several wild animals are kosher and may be eaten, they aren’t suited for Temple sacrifices. These restrictions upon animal sacrifices provide an important lesson about religious identity and religious experience. By definition, religion implies interacting with, and searching for, “something else”- beyond the routine of daily life. We search for a relationship with the “Other” who isn’t limited to our human world. We follow His Law, even when it urges us to transcend our day-to-day routine. We study His Torah, which contains His timeless will – a wisdom which lies beyond our immediate reality. Additionally, we assert that history is evolving to a Messianic era, which will be dramatically different from our current condition. Finally, though we embrace our current world, we acknowledge a more eternal realm which awaits us. Religion is a journey and a quest for something beyond the concrete reality we inhabit. Yet, in searching for the “beyond”, we sometimes convince ourselves that religious experience cannot truly be attained in our current condition or in our current lives. When pursuing religious meaning we sometimes attempt to become “someone else” or “something else” because we simply cannot envision our current wearisome lives as religiously “suitable” or as opportunities for religious encounter. In extreme cases, people feel compelled to change their name, their dress or their community because their current condition feels too drab and too empty- incompatible with true religious experience. Restricting religious sacrifices to domesticated animals stresses that religious opportunity lies right beneath our own two feet- in our own backyards. Religious meaning doesn’t demand combing the jungles or traversing the high seas to locate some other reality to replace our current “boring” or simple reality. Encountering G-d doesn’t demand that we divest our current selves to transform into something entirely different or altered. Instead, genuine religious experience consists in reframing our common and daily routine with religious motivation and in rerouting our ordinary experiences toward religious goals. The foundation of religion must be crafted from the commonplace; upon this foundation we can then assemble more sophisticated religious ideas and more spectacular religious moments. As surpassing as religion can become, it must be firmly founded upon the “ordinary” and the domestic: simple goats and oxen from our own courtyards serve as the platform for religious experience. To grow religiously we needn’t travel to distant shores; it is sufficient to stay at home. This truth about religion has become even more evident during the current corona crisis, as we have been literally, and imaginatively, quarantined at home. The gala Pesach seders of past years were replaced with more muted and private gatherings. The communal gathering in Synagogues, were cancelled, yielding quiet personal prayers offered in our homes. So much of our religious energy – typically invested outwards, has now been turned inwards, to our inner lives and our own family life. Living with our families in such close quarters and for such concentrated periods, we face some very challenging questions: have we become more tolerant, generous, selfless and sympathetic? Have we transformed into more nobler, more righteous and more religiously sensitive versions of ourselves? Have we grown religiously even though that growth hasn’t radiated outward but spiraled inward? Spending two months at home has reinforced the sense that religious growth must begin at home- literally in our own backyard. Home quarantine hasn’t just reminded us that religious identity starts at home; it has also spotlighted the true source of human identity and, ultimately, of human happiness and contentment. Under normal conditions, our self-fulfillment, and selfaffirmation are products of many different spheres of human activity. Our identity and sense of self are molded by our professional achievements, our social interactions, our financial successes, our academic endeavors and by many other areas of human experience. An invisible virus has shut down many of these spheres and has reduced human identity to its most basic core. This reduction has posed a haunting existential question: Can we be happy in our own skin without any other external circles of human experience? Can we draw happiness and self-esteem solely from our religious identity, our very personal and private moments, and our basic interactions with our nuclear families? Ultimately, without this elementary contentment, other forms of satisfaction remain transient and artificial. If this internal and self-sufficient contentment is missing, externally supplied fulfillment rings hollow and is, ultimately, illusory. When –with G-d’s help- the crisis passes will we be able to maintain this core happiness even as we return to our routine and add additional layers of human activity to our lives? Will we be able to maintain a sense that, ideally, everything we need for human happiness can be located in our private lives? Can we remember that happiness is found in our own backyard and not on international flights or in busy malls? This once-in-a-lifetime health crisis strips human identity to its very core. What and who will we find looking back at us in the mirror?