BAT MITZVAH DVAR TORAH –Gloria Levi

I am dedicating this Dvar torah to my beloved daughterAlisa, Zichrona l’bracha, Her memory is a blessing. She is with us here today.
March 1, I turned 83, 13 years longer than the 3 score & 10 that the torah considered a normal life span , time to rededicate myself to Torah and G-d…It has been a life of learning, marriage, family, career, social activism and reflection. And now, 13 years extra, of grace, love, loss, loneliness, soul searching, discovery and rediscovery…

Today is also International Women’s Day… a day worth celebrating. I did not participate in the demonstrations or marches of the 60’s and 70’s. I did not burn bras or shout slogans. But if the personal is political, then I was a militant personal feminist. It is a truism that before one has the ability to love others, one must be able to love ones’ self. But that is an evolving process. , I hold on to the strength that I get from sisterhood, from sharing the unique energy, creativity, and lovingness that flows when women gather together and share. It is a wonder! We, women have been and continue to be change agents, we are the Or Chadash, a new light.

Today, when I hear that the subjugation of women is justified by citing that G-d made women subordinate to men, I feel such a deep revulsion, that G-d’s name should be so desecrated. It is truly chilul hashem. My heart cries for those women who suffer cruelly under such a system which is endemic throughout the world. We sang Bread and Roses this morning. 25 of March 1911, 146 women lost their lives at the Triangle Shirt Factory, due to appalling work conditions. And closer to home only 22 years ago, on Sept. 3, 1991 in Hamlet North Carolina, a fire broke out in a chicken processing plant where 7 of the 9 exits were blocked. Twenty five workers died and another 55 were severely injured. Most of them were black women, single moms, working for very low wages under appalling safety conditions. Last year, in Bangladesh and Pakistan, more than 100 years after the historic Triangle Shirt fire, the story was repeated. The rush to manufacture goods in the cheapest and most efficient way often comes at the expense of the workers. The fact that today’s oppression is not perpetrated on our own people, but rather on South Americans, East and Southeast Asians and Africans does not mitigate our responsibility. The Torah exhorts us to be concerned with the suffering of others, do not oppress the poor, the orphan, the stranger, because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.

The portion this week is Vayikra. Vayikra, Leviticus, comes in the middle of the Chumash. Genesis, Exodus, Numbers place us in an on-going history, connecting us to our ancestors, whose struggles were our own. They are our agadot, the stories we tell about ourselves. Their stories can shape our hearts. But ritual shapes our days. Vayikra is all about rituals. These rituals shape us into a people. They are reminders of our common history. They bind us as a people. They remind us of our ethical values. For me, the similes and metaphors of these rituals add a kind of rich poetry to my life. It softens my heart. However, I would be the first to admit that ritual divorced from the ethical treatment of human beings is a LIE. Our haftarah today testifies to that.

Vayikra is the Bible’s ‘how to’ book for the priests on how to perform sacrifices. G-d instructs Moses on the 5 different kinds of sacrifices that were to be offered: the Olah, Mincha, Chatat, Asham, and Shlamim. It appears ancient, obsolete, irrelevant and even bizarre, and it is truly difficult to wrest meaning from this book. It was an expression of the worship of G-d in biblical times. So, is Leviticus merely ancient history?? Can we really find religious and moral inspiration amidst the bulls, goats, sheep and pigeons and the bloodstains of the sacrificial system? What was its purpose? Today we substitute prayer for animal sacrifices, recognizing the power of the word. The word sacrifice, Korban, means to draw closer to G-d, l’karev. It is more than just an offering of an animal. It symbolizes a relationship between the human and G-d, a longing for a special kind of intimacy with G-d, dvekut, which the Chasidim call a bonding, almost like a gluing. I think we need to talk about what we mean by “G-d”. I know that word often puts off my grandchildren. So I’ll try to explain to you, my grandchildren, what I mean when I use the word G-d. I believe that the spirit of loving kindness, compassion, grace, and social justice has an enduring and powerful essence, an energy, a process, a being and that these qualities all rolled up into one, is my G-d, to whom I pray. It is my way of making sense of the absurdities of life. This energy, this force, this power sustains me, (as my grandson Yoni used to say, “May the Force be with you”) To be in the presence of these qualities, or as some might say, to be in the presence of G-d, gives me the deepest and most extraordinary joy one can imagine.

Back to Vayikra…

Ritual is the struggle of flawed human beings trying to become more human. It creates opportunities for human beings to access their higher consciousness, to redeem ourselves from selfishness, narcissism, and cruelty. And so we are all enjoined to become mamlechet kohanim-a kingdom of priests.
I want to look closely at one of the sacrifices, the chatat, the sin offering. They are sacrifices brought for serious sins that are committed not by wanton evil or wrongdoing, but by mistake, or through ignorance. There are the chatat yachid unwitting sins by an individual and there is chatat kahal, where an entire people, without realizing it, are all involved in the same involuntary sin. Everyone in the community is involved yet no one person caused it. It is a systemic problem. Like the Triangle Shirt Factory, the clothing factories in Bangladesh, and closer to home, the chicken factory in Hamlet, North Carolina. Working conditions the world over is unimaginably complicated and difficult to address. It is woven into the very fabric of our global society .

Today, as I offer my prayer of “chatat kahal” , I am saying, even if the bad situation is a function of global economic patterns of incredible complexity; even if there is no obvious solution, or perhaps no solution at all, INJUSTICE IS INJUSTICE and I publicly acknowledge it. Perhaps acknowledgement is the first step. What will be my offering, however, small? Although my efforts are miniscule, I am committed to work and support organizations for change. As Pirke Avot says, “the work is not for us to finish. But nor are we free to exempt ourselves from it.”
And now… I come to my 13th year beyond the normal life span and ask myself, “ What is the role of an elder?” Not to abdicate the position but perhaps, to lead in the model of Moshe, humbly, non-judgmentally, lovingly, to rebuke when necessary in a way that does not shame as described in the Talmud to learn from the young and to guide. Because, “Even in old age, we shall bring forth fruit, we shall be full of grace, declaring, ‘that the Lord is just.”

Job said that “with age comes wisdom, and length of days brings understanding” so here’s what I’ve learned over the past 83 years…
I spent a good part of my life active in social causes, inspired by G-d’s righteous indignation and anger against injustice. The prophets inspired me. Alongside me, there are also many atheist activists who were inspired by their humanism.

On a personal note, through the pain and agony that I’ve experienced, it was hard not to wallow in bitterness and resentment. How could I find G-d? Somehow, by going deeper into the self. Mordechai Kaplan talks of a dialogue between our individual egocentric self and the higher self that represents the working of the Divine Process within us. Arthur Green calls it the deepest self, Divine Spark that is within us. And one of my beloved teachers, Abraham Joshua Heschel talks about taking notice of wonder! I can’t emphasize enough that the world is full of G-d’s Glory. We only have to open ourselves to G-d’s presence; in someone giving me a seat on a crowded train, a smile from a stranger, the davenning of Beethoven’s 5th, the love in a Renoir painting. There are moments…pure moments…of beauty, of lovingness, of gratuitous kindnesses. And they are all around us..only we do not see them. My dear social activist humanist friend, caught up legitimately in righteous indignation for the manmade suffering in the world, often does not take note of this. She sees only the injustice. To see the world through wonder and radical amazement brings such sublime joy.

So today I offer a prayer of well-being and thanksgiving, shlamim…with a whole heart. For a marriage that was a true partnership in values and rich in family life. For my children who taught me humility and compassion..rachamim, whose root word is rechem, womb. To my grandchildren who brought to me the joy of watching small beautiful buds unfold to beautiful flowers, good and honest youg adults. And I thank Or Shalom who has been my community, my extended family, who have taught and guided me, supported me, and loved me.

Life is good. Life is beautiful.
It’s A Wonderful World (song: What A Wonderful World)