It is better to have sinned and repented than to never have sinned at all. So said Rabbi Abahu in the Talmud, though he said it with a bit more gravitas: “In a place where the penitent stand, the sinless may not stand.”
In this week’s parasha, Parshat Tzav, as in last week’s Parshat Vayikrah, we are given a description of the five Korbanot, or ritual sacrifices: the Olah (the burnt offering), Minchah (the meal offering), Hatat (sin-offering), Asham (guilt-offering), and Shelamim (peace offering). These rituals celebrate God’s presence in the newly consecrated tabernacle—God’s earthly residence. And although the Kohanim are specifically addressed in this section, the Tabernacle existed for the benefit of all, not solely for the priesthood.
There is suggestion by commentators that the Korbanot were not for God, but rather that they served the needs of the community. For example the root word of Korban is “to draw near.” Ritual sacrifices were meant to draw the Israelites closer to God. They provided a vehicle for the individual and the community to sanctify God as well as to make amends for wrongdoing. Inherent in the practice of public sacrifice was the recognition that each person inevitably makes mistakes and that the community together could obtain expiation. The fact that the Kohanim were required to purify themselves before interceding on others’ behalf provides further evidence that not even the high priest was free from imperfection. Also, the high priests’ offering was the same as that brought by the poorest of the poor so the pauper would not feel ashamed to offer his own lowly flour offering. We see here an acknowledgement of the common humanity among all of the Israelites, regardless of status…and also the importance of inclusion.
I’d like to focus on one of the ritual sacrifices—the asham. The asham offering was a ram that was an obligatory sacrifice to redress intentional sins. For deliberate wrongdoing, ritual sacrifice was not enough in and of itself, but once individuals completed teshuvah, once they had fully repented, they—along with their entire community--had a regular, ritualized, public opportunity to let go of wrongdoing and to rejoin the community with a clear conscience. The public nature of this ritual is important for healing. Brene Brown, a social worker, educator and author of the book “Daring Greatly,” distinguishes between GUILT and SHAME. Guilt, in her view, is: “I’ve done something wrong;” whereas, shame is “I AM wrong.” Her research demonstrates that guilt is a healthy emotion. The acknowledgment that we were wrong allows us to make things right with God, ourselves, others, and the community. Shame, on the other hand, is about the fear of disconnection. It thrives on secrecy and isolation and induces such psychological pain that we usually respond with avoidance and self-criticism. This avoidance prevents the righting of wrongs and keeps us stuck in an emotional space that prevents peace and healing. In this state, we are unlikely to right the wrongs we have committed because our actions are just too painful to think about. The asham, or guilt offering, provides an outlet for such suffering. Rabbi Dorothy Richman writes: "In Parshah Tzav, guilt feelings are transformed into actions bringing healing...offering this sacrifice, a person's guilt is made publicly manifest and is then absolved...the ancient system of sacrifice offered a ritual of coming together for the community."
“In a place where the penitent stand, the sinless may not stand.” How do we, in a time when we no longer perform ritual sacrifices restore belonging to those who have been disenfranchised? The term “disenfranchise” means to “deprive (a person) of the right to vote or other rights of citizenship.” Conversely, “enfranchise” derives from the French word enfranchir, meaning to “make free.” Disfranchisement may be accomplished explicitly by law or implicitly through requirements applied in a discriminatory fashion, intimidation, or by placing unreasonable requirements on voters for registration or voting. We certainly have seen examples of this kind of disenfranchisement with recently proposed voter ID legislation around the country. But the term disenfranchisement itself originates from its intent to prevent individuals who have been convicted of a felony from voting. A felony is defined as any offense that could potentially carry a sentence of one year. It is worth noting that 75% of convicted felons never serve time in jail and are working and living in community unable to fully be reinstated into citizenship by being denied the right to vote. Nearly six million Americans cannot vote because of a felony conviction.
Take a moment to visualize that iconic red and white “I voted” sticker you receive at the polls. Picture yourself wearing that sticker. What do you think of and feel when you consider what it means to have the right to vote? (Ask for answers.)_____________________
Displaying that “I voted” sticker gives you entrée into a group of fellow citizens, an immediate “ingroup,” the members of which share your values about freedom, civic participation, and responsibility for this society and this world. What would it be like for you if that right were taken away? What would you think of and feel under those circumstances? Picture yourself being turned away at the polls. See if you can, in your mind, connect to what that would be like for you. (pause) …………………………………………………..
Imagine your own worst wrongdoings, sins for which you have repented and made right between you and your God preventing you from taking your place “at the table” of civic discourse.
Unlike the inclusive nature of the asham, where the imperfections of all people—Kohanim and Israelites alike—were recognized, attempts at voter suppression disproportionately keeps certain segments of the population, namely, the poor, people of color, and individuals with traditionally less social power, from exercising their right to vote and thereby fully participating in this great democratic nation. Disenfranchisement policies exclude one in six African-American males. According to Zachary Roth of MSNBC, “Many state restrictions on felon voting were imposed in the wake of Reconstruction, as the South looked for ways to suppress black political power.”
Not all states have restrictive voting laws for former criminals. Maine and Vermont allow prison inmates as well as probationers and parolees to vote. However, in 11 states, individuals may permanently lose their right to vote, and 10 states restrict some voting based on misdemeanor conviction. In Minnesota, individuals who have been convicted of a felony may be re-enfranchised only after completing probation and parole. And parole and probation sentences in Minnesota are among the longest in the country: 10 to 20 years, or more.
To remedy this disparity, the Senate Elections Omnibus bill (SF455) will restore the vote to “individuals convicted of a felony who complete any incarceration imposed and executed by the court for the offense, or upon sentencing if no incarceration is imposed and executed. If the individual is later incarcerated for the same offense, the individual's civil right to vote is lost only during the period of incarceration.” A similar bill is being sponsored on the federal level by Representative John Conyers on the House Judiciary Committee.
Returning to Parshat Tzav, there is commentary on why this Parshah begins with reference to Aharon; whereas Aharon is not mentioned at all in the previous Parshah. The commentary goes that Aharon’s name was omitted from Parshat Vayikrah because God was still angry about his role in the golden calf. Moses intercedes on behalf of his brother. He asks God: “What type of wood is suitable for kindling a fire on the mizbayach?” God replies that all kinds of wood are acceptable, except for grape vines and olives. Moses argues that God reserved an honored place for grape vines and olives because of the value of their offspring and suggests that God treat Aharon in an honorable way for the sake of his sons. God accepts his argument and demonstrates this by beginning Tzav with the words "Command Aharon and his sons..."
When we disenfranchise members of the community, we also disenfranchise their children. It’s important for children to see their parents voting and fully participating in society. In this way, parents have the opportunity to engage their children in discussions about justice and responsibility. The next generation benefits from exposure to this important democratic cornerstone.
You can help by giving your support to this bill and thereby restoring justice to individuals who have done the work of teshuvah and want to re-engage in the work of tikkun olam. Although voting rights restoration in Minnesota has strong bipartisan support—likely the strongest bipartisan support of any bill this session—it is not currently included in the House Elections Omnibus bill. This means that the fate of voting rights restoration this year will be decided in a conference committee in April or May. If we are going to pass voting rights restoration, legislators need to know that the public is watching. They need to know that we will be looking for voting rights restoration in the final elections omnibus bill passed by both houses. After Shabbat, please consider calling your legislators and Minnesota Speaker of the House Kurt Daudt and ask them to support voting rights restoration.
Remember that as we approach Pesach and ready our homes for the ritual remembrance of our passage from slavery, let us also take this opportunity to prepare our hearts and souls by acting to bring about true liberation in our own time.