Tzav: Attuning to Love
In October of 2017, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Gainesville, Florida, to protest a speech by the white nationalist Richard Spencer. When Randy Furniss, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with swastikas, was surrounded by screaming protesters, one protester in a green hoodie punched Furniss, as seen in this photo that went viral. Aaron Courtney, a black man and high school football coach in Gainesville, who came to protest against Spencer, saw Furniss after he was punched and tried a different tactic.
He went up to Furniss and embraced him.
After some hesitation Furniss hugged him back. Courtney then asked the avowed Nazi and White Supremacist, “’Why do you hate me? What is it about me? Is it my skin color? My history? My dreadlocks? Why do you hate me?”
Furniss finally said, “I don’t know.”
This moment is as shocking as it is revealing. How is it that Aaron Courtney can embrace the very thing that he is protesting against? How is it that Randy Furniss can find himself at the end of a man’s fist one moment and in the arms of another man just a moment later? What did they see in each other that broke open the mold of hatred that embraces so many?
What Aaron knew in that fateful moment was not something that he could see. What he saw was a white man with red suspenders, mutton chops, and a swastika t-shirt – the very embodiment of anti-black (and anti-semitic ) hatred. What he knew, however, was what his father, a bishop of his church, had taught him, that hatred is a feeling that begins and ends inside of ourselves, not in other people.
Hatred is a feeling we have when we feel so aggrieved and aggravated by the world that we use our capacity to express our emotions to hate each other. It’s something that each of us must deal with internally as much as we want to act on it externally. It fills in the gaps of the heart where love should be. What Aaron saw in Randy was a man emboldened by hatred, but Aaron knew somehow that Randy was a man who was also bereft of love.
And so this black man showed this white man that they both have the capacity to love.
It should be no surprise that Randy Furniss was not born a skinhead. He devolved into hatred after suicide attempts. As human beings, we need to feel and be felt. It’s how our minds process our experiences and how we know that we exist. When we lose out on feeling love and loving others, our heart becomes a vacuum, sucking in any feeling that makes the pain of nothingness go away. Hatred is often, as the Bible says, crouching at the door, waiting and ready to come into the empty heart. A person who is so empty of love feels nothing for others. As the writer Maya Angelou once said, “ he will not only feel free to take another man’s life, he will feel free to allow his own life to be taken.”
I learned this story from my very good friend Chloe Valdary, the founder of Theory of Enchantment, which I believe is perhaps the most important anti-racism training organization in America. Chloe’s work has gained international recognition, so much so that she was featured in The Atlantic Magazine this year. At the heart of the Theory of Enchantment is a remarkably Jewish idea. Every one of us is more than an abstraction to be looked upon as an object, and if we want to build a better society, we must raise each other up instead of tearing each other down. Or to put it more religiously, each of us is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, imbued with a unique spark of holiness; and to make the world better, we must collect the sparks into a beautiful spectrum of God’s light through the process of tikkun or repair.
In other words, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18)
The Book of Leviticus, like the Theory of Enchantment, is a training manual for moving beyond what is seen to what is felt. In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we find that over and over again the process of the sacrificial system is meant to attune the heart to the possibility of love by removing shame, guilt, and sin. Each sacrifice is a ritual of expiation that pumps out the parts of our heart filled with darker things.
Embedded in the litany of sacrifices is the warning against eating the blood of the sacrificial animal. (Leviticus 7:27) This is one of the three places in the Torah where we are instructed that blood is forbidden. The first is in Genesis: shortly after the flood Noah is commended by God, “You may eat of all the beasts of the field, as with the greens of the grasses, but must not eat the flesh with the life-blood in it.” (Genesis 9:3-4) This commandment forms the basis of kashrut, or the intentional and spiritual food laws within Jewish life. (Talmud Sanhedrin 59a) Refraining from eating blood might seem like a particularly arcane example of ritual practice, but it holds a deep symbolic truth. Each creature is made of both flesh and spirit. In Jewish practice, it is permitted to eat the flesh of the animal, but we cannot symbolically take its spirit. The sheep, cow, or bird shares as much of God’s spark as you or I. When we do not allow ourselves to eat an animal’s blood, its symbolic life force, we put forth a special ethic that says not everything is open to us, especially the life of God’s creation. The ethic of Kashrut, follows the larger ethic of sacrifice, which follows the even larger ethic of cherishing all life and each other. Leviticus asks us to accustom ourselves to act deliberately everyday in the recognition that divinity is sewn into every part of the world. Through these rituals, we attune to love. If we can be so intentional with what goes into our mouths, the logic goes, then we must be equally intentional with what comes out of our mouths.
The Book of Leviticus feels messy, but it hits home at every turn. More than anything, it teaches us that there is no separation between the outer world and our inner world. Every battle with others begins and ends with a battle inside our own hearts. If we feel unloved, we can lose our sense of what it means to love. If we feel hatred towards others, it’s because we have felt hatred from others, and even as Randy has expressed, hatred from ourselves. Leviticus leads us through a path that begins with purging our hatred, leads us to loving each other, and eventually to taking responsibility for our future. It is such a wonderful, if not misunderstood, book.