Rabbi Stephanie Kolin – Shabbat Vayikra 5781 D’var Torah
V’im Kol Adat Yisrael Yishgu: Standing with the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community
My family recently moved from Gowanus to Crown Heights, so we became avid users of the Buy Nothing Facebook Group for our old neighborhood. If you’re unfamiliar with what that is, it’s a forum that people use to give things away or request something for free. It’s a way for communities to share what they have, make less waste, and offload things they are done with that might find a new home with someone who needs it. We used it to rehome some furniture, a few toys, paper goods, and a whole bunch of other things that weren’t coming to the new apartment. Then, this week, someone made a post that stopped me cold.
A woman wrote: “I wonder if this is the right place for my post, so please feel free to delete. As an Asian older woman, can I reach out to this group to ask for the gift of walking with me? I feel pretty safe in this neighborhood…but there are times when it’s quieter or darker. If I should feel the need to have another person just walk with me doing errands, is it okay to reach out here? I guess it’s a gift of accompanying?” She continues, “Preferably a non-Asian person because whoever it is, has to walk back alone. Thank you.”
The free gift that she hoped to find amongst strangers? Safety. Freedom from fear. Protection from someone attacking her because she is Asian, is a woman, is vulnerable and a target. She doesn’t ever explicitly give context or say why, but the readers understand. She calls it the gift of accompanying. And it seems like the very highest level of giving we can all do right now. And also, it is disturbing at the highest level that on a Facebook page which is meant to help people find a new water pitcher, a wacky painting, or 500 paperclips, this woman arrived, gently asking for the free gift of human armor, so she may walk in her own neighborhood without being attacked.
This Shabbat, we begin reading the Book of Vayikra, or Leviticus. In some ways, Leviticus seems like the most archaic of our books and the least relevant, often referencing the Priestly laws of the Temple and animal sacrifice, entrails, and blood. And yet, within the very first portion, among its early verses, Vayikra seems to speak directly into this moment in time. As I read it, I thought – what a gift this is.
There’s a section that discusses what to do if various individuals commit sins without realizing it. And it includes this: וְאִם כָּל־עֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל יִשְׁגּוּ וְנֶעְלַם דָּבָר מֵעֵינֵי הַקָּהָל
If the whole community of Israel has erred, yishgu, and the matter is unseen, ne’lam, by the congregation, and they do any of the things which by God’s commandments ought not to be done, and then they realize their guilt—וְנוֹדְעָה הַחַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר חָטְאוּ עָלֶיהָ
when the sin through which they incurred guilt becomes known, nod’ah, the congregation shall offer a bull as a sin offering, and bring it before the Tent of Meeting.
To put these two verses a little more simply – when a body of people enact a collective sin, and up until a certain point, that sin was ne’lam, invisible, to them – and then they realize that their actions are sinful…they need to fix it. And then the text gives explicit instruction on how to fix it.
With this text, we encounter the idea that kol eidah – an entire community – can be responsible for bad action as a collective. This past week, when one man sought out and deliberately aimed his weapon at Asian women, he obviously committed a heinous and racist crime and must be held accountable. AND also, we know, the pervasive racism in this country that strengthened his hand and incubates this kind of hate, is a COMMUNAL sin, and responsibility.
For more than a year, people holding the highest offices in our land have aggressively mocked and blamed Asian people for COVID. Bigotry against Asians and Pacific Islanders has increased by more than 150% in the past year, with 3,795 hate crimes against Asian Americans since last March. This growing racism has been bubbling in a cauldron of dangerous incitement right in front of our eyes.
And, of course, Anti-Asian bigotry is not new. One the effects of the increased attacks has been that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been bravely writing about their experiences growing up Asian in this country. Like Rebecca Kuss, an Asian Jewish woman who shared that she was harassed all through childhood, in such destructive ways that she would explain away her Korean identity by leaning on her Jewish identity even as her own Jewish Korean mother was denied a place on the bima at Rebecca’s bat mitzvah. Her food, body, and family were sources of derision instead of pride.
So what do we do? We start by mourning. Yesterday, we stood on the steps of CBE in silence for eight minutes, for each of the eight people who were murdered in Atlanta. And then, as Rabbi Timoner, reminded us there, we raise our voices, we stand up and speak out. Ours is a community with many Asian and Pacific Islander members and family of members – so first, we say – we who are not Asian, like I am not, say – I see you in your pain right now, and your pain is also my pain because we are family, or we are community, or we are still strangers, but your life and safety is important to me as we share this Jewish home or this Brooklyn home.
Because if we didn’t see it or acknowledge it or understand it before, we do now. There is a very powerful and pregnant moment that this verse in Vayikra sets up.
There is a point up until which a community can sin and the thing is ne’lam…invisible to them. It shouldn’t be, it’s hard to conceive of how that’s possible, we who didn’t see it might feel shame about that – but Vayikra acknowledges that it is a painful human truth that we often can’t see the waters in which we are swimming. But, then the verse continues: as soon as the thing becomes nod’ah – known – and the eidah realizes its collective sin, the community must make restitution for it, and change its ways. To learn and listen to the stories of Asian Americans, to come to understand how misogyny and the sexualizing of Asian women are wrapped up into this horrible moment. To understand Asian immigrant stories and experiences. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden whose eyes are opened and then they can see they are naked, once our eyes are open, there is no going back from that. Anti-Asian racism didn’t begin this year, but perhaps the violent act of white terrorism we witnessed this week might trigger that breath between ne’lam and nod’ah – invisible and known.
And now that it is nod’ah, known, acknowledged, tragically right in front of us, we move toward repair. Vayikra assumes from the very beginning that we are individually and communally imperfect and likely to mess up. But it also generously assumes that our imperfection is not permanent. We are provided a way toward teshuvah, a way to repair what is broken. And in Vayikra, that is most often done through ritual sacrifice, which in Hebrew, is called a korban. Korban does not mean sacrifice, though. It comes from the verb l’karev, to draw near. To get close. Perhaps, to accompany. The path back given to us is – drawing near to one another, to be each other’s protector and partner. To walk with each other in friendship and allyship.
I went back to that Facebook post. 122 people responded to the poster, an outpouring of community support and solidarity, affirmatively answering the request to feel and be safer, and less alone – not just on the street, but in this moment. The poster edited her post to say that she was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and companionship and would take folks up on their offers. It’s a start. Communal sin – as outdated as that term may seem today – can only be addressed by communal response and repair. May we find ways both literal and metaphoric to walk together in the weeks and months ahead, may we accompany one another toward safety, toward a dismantling of Anti-Asian hatred, of all bigotry and racism and misogyny, and dehumanization. And may all those in pain right now know healing and the blessing of solidarity.