I went on a kind of pilgrimage this week. No, not a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as our ancestors made at festival times in the ancient world, when the Temple was still standing. Rather, it was an interfaith trip to our nation’s capital to visit significant religious sites from several different groups. On the itinerary was the National Cathedral, the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) Washington DC Temple, the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Washington Hebrew Congregation, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and the Sri Siva Vishnu Hindu Temple. (Lamentably, there was no mosque on the itinerary, perhaps because it is still Ramadan).
Our group was mixed – Jewish and Christian clergy of various streams, and part of the experience was the inevitable discussions en route: learning about one another’s traditions, seeking common ground, discovering how we read, for example, the Torah differently. I learned, for example, that Catholics celebrate Shavu’ot, although they refer to it as Pentecost, and for them it is the beginning of the ministry of the Apostles. They actually see it as an analog to our celebration of Mattan Torah, the gift of Torah at Mt. Sinai. And, by the way, it’s exactly seven weeks after Easter!*
Speaking of the Torah, one of the essential pieces of Aḥarei Mot, from which we read today, is a description of the ancient Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol / High Priest would confess the sins of the Israelites onto the “scapegoat” and send it off into the wilderness.
What is interesting about this, both from a Jewish perspective and from an interfaith perspective is that, while everybody wants to be cleansed of their sins, no major religious tradition as far as I know reads that passage as a literal guide to atonement. We, the Jews, pray and fast and confess our sins in public and ask for forgiveness from each other and from God, and pledge to change our ways. Christians and Muslims and Hindus and so forth all have their own ways of seeking forgiveness from sin, and many of these traditions include some of the aspects of the Kohen Gadol’s Yom Kippur ritual, particularly confession.
But nobody does exactly what is found in the Torah. We rather look back through the unique lenses of each of our respective faiths to relate to what we read in Aḥarei Mot (Vayiqra / Leviticus 16-18) this week. In that sense, we share some sense of common heritage. On this trip, there were multiple times that everybody in the group looked to the Jews as the originators of some of their practices, not in the sense of, “You did it all wrong, and we have fixed it!” But rather with the thrust of, “Thank you for showing us the way.” And frankly, that was somewhat encouraging.
One of the things that I have come to understand in recent years is that people of faith share quite a bit across religious lines. While I think that many of us grew up with a certain amount of justifiable fear or discomfort around non-Jews, given the complicated and unpleasant history of our people, I feel today a kinship with my non-Jewish colleagues which reflects our shared goals: to encourage mutual respect, to understand that while our religious approaches differ and our interpretations of scripture disagree, our goals are often the same.
We share a common yearning, and a common enemy.
We yearn for God. Yes, each in our own individual way; for some that yearning does not reflect traditional God language. But, as with the words of the Psalmist (Ps. 42:2):
כְּאַיָּ֗ל תַּעֲרֹ֥ג עַל־אֲפִֽיקֵי־מָ֑יִם כֵּ֤ן נַפְשִׁ֨י תַעֲרֹ֖ג אֵלֶ֣יךָ אֱ-לֹהִֽים
Like a deer crying for water, my soul cries for You, O God.
The 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal once described this human need as a “God-shaped vacuum in the human soul,” a place inside of us that cries out for the potential that God gives us: for human connection, for doing good works, for elevating the holiness between people. What has continued to cause people to gather in praise of God, as we are doing right now? What has sustained religious engagement into a modernity that refuses to create room for God? It’s not kiddush (collation), and it’s not swimming in the pool at the JCC.
It is that impulse for Divinity, the fundamental human need to seek out the Divine spark in ourselves and others. It is the desire to fill that God-shaped hole. And we do that by building houses of worship; by telling stories and interpreting Scripture and adhering to customs and law and pilgrimage festivals with no pilgrimage and immersion in baptismal fonts and miqva’ot (Jewish ritual baths) and all the things that we do to pursue the Godliness in ourselves and others.
And what is our common enemy? It is indifference. It is the disinterested shrug that turns us back to the television, or the outrage machine on our smartphone screens, or intoxicants or shopping sprees or all the ways in which we divert ourselves and avoid facing the things we really need to face.
If we do not fill that vacuum with God, with the values that our tradition teaches us, we fill it with junk. We fill it with all of the myriad things which draw us away from holiness: leshon hara (the evil tongue) and idle pursuits rather than prayer and learning; fear and hatred of the other rather than love and connection and engagement; all of our numerous unhealthy addictions instead of the holy patterns in Jewish time.
But you know better. You know that your religious framework gives you values which shape your life and your environs for the better: family; boundaries; conservation; gratitude; joy; understanding; community; support in times of grief; seeing multiple sides to every argument; respect for our fellow human beings; justice.
If only more people in the world understood the value in our traditions, in our holy books, in our framework. Maybe some of the turmoil in our world would be lessened somewhat. That is where my tefillah, my prayer is focused.
After dinner on Tuesday, when we had visited the LDS Temple, the synagogue, and the AME church, our friend and neighbor from Church of the Redeemer, Rev. Canon Natalie Hall, observed that in each of those places, our tour guides led with their most essential values. For the LDS folks, it was family. For the Jews, it was text, the holy words of our tradition. For the African Methodist Episcopal Church, it was justice.
If we were only to hold up those three things – family, text, justice – dayyenu! It would be enough. But of course that is not exactly how Judaism, or any faith tradition, works. We need to see, in some sense, the richness of our tradition through the lens of all that we do. We need to dig deeper, to climb higher, to keep reading and learning and discussing and arguing. We have to understand that, while we do not have a Kohen Gadol or a scapegoat or an altar on which to sacrifice to God, we do have the words of our tradition and our rituals and our law and our philosophy and the contemporary understandings that make these things meaningful to us today to guide us, in the words of Isaiah (42:21), יַגְדִּ֥יל תּוֹרָ֖ה וְיַאְדִּֽיר, to magnify and glorify God’s teaching.
Spending two days with colleagues from other traditions only reminded me that we are allies in faith, and that we all seek greater connection and a better world. And we can do that, folks. We carry ancient keys to the secrets for a healthier society. We only have to continue to teach them and live them.
And, let’s face it: given the rising rates of anti-Semitic activity, it is good for us to be wary, and to decry anti-Jewish bias when we encounter it. But we must also seek partners across the aisle – in churches, mosques, and temples of all kinds – so that we might all seek forgiveness for our sins where appropriate; so that we might seek to understand each other and speak the same language, and so that we might be able to fill that God-shaped hole in the world.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/30/2022.)
* Echoing the seven weeks of Sefirat ha’Omer, the counting of the sheaves of barley from the second day of Pesaḥ until Shavu’ot, as described in the Torah. Today, there are no sheaves of barley, but Jews still count the seven weeks.