The Leviticus:8 Project
He shall bring them to the priest, who shall offer first the one for the sin offering, pinching its head at the nape without severing it. Leviticus 5:8
I was chatting with a new friend of my generation about the changing circumstances in which we live. I am a rabbi, though out of the congregational setting after more than 35 years, and he is a pediatrician. Each of us acknowledged that certain practices that were deemed perfectly ordinary and even advisable when we were close to the beginnings of our careers are now completely redefined.
I have tracked gradual increase of space and the gradual decrease of privacy between me and people who sought my counsel. A hug, even in public, is no longer innocent. Pastoral counseling, which remains privileged and confidential, must provide for immediate interruption if either I feel or my visitor feels the need. And I am not sure what to do with the instructions I received in seminary from the Freudian psychiatrist who taught us always to ask people about their sex lives. (He is dead a dozen years, so I don’t mind admitting that I rarely followed his advice.)
My friend has a more complex situation than I. As children approach adolescence their need for privacy makes having a parent in the examining room uncomfortable; a stranger as a third-party chaperone has its own complications. Conversations about gender identity, sexual activity, domestic abuse and even pronouns are both more necessary and less simple than ever before. Even turn-your-head-and-cough is a fraught instruction.
He and I each have discussed this dilemma with people in our children’s generation, people who are more “woke” than we claim to be. Each of us has heard some version of reproof that what we find so difficult to change in our practice and behavior never should have been a part of that conduct in the first place. I will acknowledge that there were behaviors I considered flirtatious or seductive when I was dating that I understand now were demeaning and disrespectful with the benefit of hindsight. But what about behavioral conventions that had no (conscious) element of the inappropriate attached?
The whole section of Leviticus from which this verse comes deals with people who realize after the fact – sometimes long after the fact – that they have violated a law or convention. Maybe they forgot what they had done or maybe they just weren’t paying attention, but something or someone comes to remind them that they have (religious word warning) sinned. The spiritual bruise of the act has never healed, even if it has faded.
Bringing an offering to the priest helps to rectify the situation. The two birds are the offering of someone with modest capacity – not enough to afford an animal, more than enough to afford a measure of flour.
But how do I address the unconscious sins of my past? Unlike at least some of the men caught up in the #metoo awakening, it is fifty years later that I understand that “pick up lines” were not as much the innocent love call of the hormonal teenager as a manipulative attempt to scratch an itch. Unlike brother clergy lately in the news, it is twenty-five years later that I consider that wrapping my arms around a distraught congregant (of any age or gender) might have been considered as much assault as comfort. And only recently do I hear “ick” beneath the laughter at some of my humor.
How do I become an agent of healing, for others first and then for myself?
I have the luxury of retirement. I can attend to my own social behavior going forward without the challenges that my doctor friend faces in his sacred profession. I can reflect on whether incidents I remember from long ago, now in a different light, demand that I seek out people who may or may not be as baffled by circumstances as I am.
Yet, I admit that despite my complete aversion to the restoration of Temple sacrifice, there is something comforting in a process of expiation that acknowledges it is never too late for healing. Where do I bring my two doves?