Parashat Vayikra

Striving for I-Thou

Parashat Vayikra challenges the Jewish community to find new ways of interacting with God and God's creations.

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In El Salvador

As a recent participant on an AJWS Rabbinic Student Delegation to Ciudad Romero, El Salvador, I found myself reflecting on Buber's teaching and thinking about how hard it is to see the Divine in other people. We were hosted by a not-for-profit organization called La Coordinadora that works with local farmers to teach sustainable and organic farming. The people with whom we worked were poor peasants, the kind of people whom I had never before encountered. It was hard for me not to try to fit them into some kind of category, to objectify them in some way in order to make the experience of their poverty more palatable.

But over the course of the delegation, I sensed myself moving along Buber's continuum. Whereas before the trip, I would have described "these people" as "the poor of the Third World," I came to see them as Irma and Marta and Maria Helena. Through hoisting the pick axe or the hoe and doing a good day's work in the fields, my fellow rabbinical students and I began to see the humanity in the face of the other in El Salvador. I tried hard to seek out an I-Thou encounter with each person I met, and that effort felt imbued with the Divine.

Participating in service work alongside the people of Ciudad Romero reminded me not to generalize about the poor, not to cast them as objects in the story I tell about my life and my liberal politics. As I returned to my everyday life, I resolved to try to bring that insight with me.

Parashat Vayikra challenged the Jewish community to embrace sacrifice as a new system of communication rooted in holiness. Prayer provides another vehicle for our interaction with God. But we should recognize that it is our interactions with others that offer a unique means of communion with the Divine that is profoundly imbued with the ethical principles and traditions of our people.

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Eleanor Steinman is a fourth year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, and an alumna of Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps and the 2007 AJWS Rabbinic Student Delegation.