Parashat Vayikra 5781 / פרשת וַיִּקְרָא
Torah Portion: Leviticus 1:1-5:26
The following was my weekly message to Congregation Ahavas Achim on March 18, 2021.
Whenever a community is attacked and blood is shed by deranged murderers, our nation mourns with that community and with those whose loved ones perished. And so it is, once again, that the Jewish community joins all peoples of faith and conscience in expressing its sorrow and extending its support to one such community. As Jews, we, of all people, must speak out. We’ve been there. We’ve felt that loss.
On Tuesday evening, Atlanta was rocked by a massacre in which a 21-year old lone gunman killed eight people — seven women, of which six were of Asian descent, and one man. As of Thursday morning, the police did not believe the shootings were racially motivated but had not ruled it out, nor was it clear whether state or federal officials would treat the massacre as a hate crime.
Given the current climate in which many Americans refer to Covid-19 as “China flu” and violence against women is its own “shadow pandemic,” it makes sense that this massacre is being experienced as an attack both against Asian-Americans and against women, even if it is not ultimately declared a hate crime against either group. The shootings follow a year in which nearly 3,800 incidents of hate against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders had been reported nationally according to Stop AAPI Hate and in which some major US cities experienced a 150% spike in crimes targeting Asian-Americans. Just as importantly, this horrific incident occurred against a global backdrop in which 1 of 3 women experience violence. In other words, to dismiss as merely coincidental that the gunman’s victims were mostly Asian-American and female would be turn a blind eye to the larger scourges facing our nation and our world.
This week, in synagogues around the world, Jewish communities will begin reading the Book of Leviticus, whose message is that we are all accountable for protecting life and creating a just world. True, on its surface the Book of Leviticus appears to be addressed primarily to the priests and Levites of Ancient Israel: much of it reads like a professional manual, providing instruction on the sacrificial system, matters of cultic purity and the observance of the Sabbath and sacred festivals. Yet, the very first word of Leviticus — vayikra, in Hebrew (lit. the Lord “called”) — is addressed not to Aaron, the high priest, but to Moses, the leader of all the people. Why? Because at its core the Book of Leviticus is a call to all of Israel to be “a holy people.” What’s more, to the extent that being a “holy people” means calling out injustice, depravity and cruelty wherever we see it, this most peculiar of all books of the bible is calling to us in this moment.
Heeding the words of our tradition, let us all speak out when one person or one ideology targets a community to terrorize or, worse, eliminate. Let us support our leaders and officials charged with protecting the lives and rights of all human beings. Let us pray that the hearts of the hateful and lawless be turned toward peace and love. And let us embrace those who bear the brunt of bigotry and hatred in all its forms, just as we embrace those who were targeted in Atlanta this week — our Asian-American brothers and sisters and women, who suffer violence all too routinely.