I’m always falling short. I fall short in my interpersonal relationships, in my avodat hashem (service of God through prayer, mitzvot, mindfulness), in my work trying to repair the world. Not a single evening comes where I can’t look back on the day and realize I could have treated someone better, said a blessing with more appreciation, or fought harder for something I believe in. This falling short is a feeling of distance: distance from my values and ideals, distance from those around me, distance from God.
But I keep going, religiously. For me, one of the most important functions of Judaism is to deal with the reality of these gaps, these distances in our selves. When I fall short, how do I get back to what is good and true in me and in the world? That question is what this week’s parasha, Vayikra is all about.
A surface read of Vayikra might seem to be instructions for a massive bbq – animals, smoke, blood, and fire, but dig a little deeper in the text and there’s a lot more. The parasha is essentially a list of korbanot. What is a korban? It’s commonly mistranslated as sacrifice or offerings but as the Ramban points out in his introduction to the parasha, the word means “drawing close,” from the root k-r-b, to be near. The different korbanot in our parasha are intended to be vehicles to draw close to God.
And when do we feel the strongest need to draw close? After we’ve been distant. The Torah’s word for this distance that I described earlier is: chet. Chet is commonly mistranslated as “sin” but is much closer to the word for missing a shot in basketball, להחטיא. To do a chet means to miss the mark of your potential. I don’t mean this in a fuzzy self-help way, there are times when I’ve missed the mark that have had serious, painful consequences for myself and others. Chet is real, but it’s not the end. It does not have to lead to despair or an abandonment of ideals. You can get back on track.
Religious ritual, whether korbanot, prayer, song, etc. can serve as a bridge from the missteps and missed opportunities of today to how we want to be tomorrow. They force us to confront the things we don’t like in ourselves but at also create the space to move forward. The message of Vayikra is the times we fall short are not excuses to run from our most important values and our relationships. It’s the opposite. Those are the moments when God calls for korban, the moments when we are to draw closest.