My first summer on staff with the PICO faith-based national organizing network, I heard an encouraging presentation about a model state federation, call it OSC, and how it was changing the politics of its state. Yet, the following summer, all of the OSC staff were inexplicably missing from the national staff gathering. I later learned from my friend and former OSC staffer, whom I’ll call Emily, that despite their political success, the OSC organizational culture had grown so dysfunctional, racialized, and non-democratic that by spring everyone on staff had quit.
Despite this dramatic organizational collapse of a member organization, our national network stayed silent, and we moved on to focus on other state federations doing outstanding work.
As Emily and I talked this winter, we wondered how our organizing network might be stronger if we had instead chosen to address what had gone wrong at OSC and tried to learn from it. Surely other state federations faced similar challenges. When had discussing our failures become taboo—or was failure too scary or painful to even talk about?
When we thought about it, Emily and I realized that PICO’s focus on action over reflection and success over failure pervades most social justice organizations we know of.
Reflecting on the hesitancy of PICO and other organizations in this area, it didn’t take me long to realize how much easier it is personally to share with the world the parts of myself that feel whole. Sharing my anxieties about body image? My self-doubts about whether I am lovable even when I am not DOING anything for other people? I realize that I’d rather not think or talk about those insecurities, because some part of me hopes that by ignoring them, they might magically just go away.
This week’s Torah portion invites us to consider: What we do with the parts of ourselves that we wish would go away, but don’t? What do we do with the parts of our organizations, congregations, family, or work culture that make us feel small, despite our best efforts to address them?
In order to find some answers, let us explore a seeming inconsistency in the text that leads the rabbis to examine these very questions.
In Parashat Tzav, the second weekly portion of the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus), we find Moses and the Israelites wandering the desert, somewhere between Egypt and the Promised Land.
Throughout Leviticus, whenever the people sin, they use sacrifices to restore their relationship with God. The Israelites are told that their sacrifices should burn all night long, and that the sweet savor of the rising smoke will remind God of God’s love for the people.
Parashat Tzav opens curiously with a topic sentence promising to give instructions about the sacrifices, and then instead gives instructions about what to do when the sacrifices have already been made.
The Lord said to Moses: “Give Aaron and his sons this command: ‘These are the instructions for the burnt offering sacrifice: The burnt offering sacrifice is to remain on the altar hearth throughout the night, till morning, and the fire must be kept burning on the altar. The priest shall then put on his linen clothes, with linen undergarments next to his body, and shall remove the ashes of the burnt offering that the fire has consumed on the altar and place them beside the altar. Then he is to take off these clothes and put on others, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a place that is ceremonially clean.’”
(Leviticus 6: 1-4)
Why, the rabbis wonder, are we told that we are about to get instructions for the burnt offering, and then instead given instructions about Trumat Hadeshen, the ritual of raising up the ashes? The actual instructions about the burnt offering come in Leviticus Chapter 1. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to put our topic sentence about instructions for the burnt offering there?
The 19th-century Chassidic Rebbe the Sfat Emet offers a remarkable answer. He says that the Trumat Hadeshen ritual of raising up the ashes in the morning, carrying them away from the altar, and disposing them at the edge of the camp actually is the essence of the burnt offering sacrifice.
As the S’fat Emet explains it, the sacrifices are about our reconnecting with God. The ancient Israelites offered their best unblemished animals and presented God with their sweet savor. But, the S’fat Emet argues, the central part of reconnecting with God is not just showing our good sides, but dealing again and again with our ashes, the stuff that seems not to go away.
Reading this in contemporary terms, we might think that we should show God and the world only our good sides, our good deeds, our accomplishments, the ways that we act according to our highest values. But then there are the parts of us we don’t like—our insecurities, our hurts, our sorrows, our old habits that die hard, if at all. Of course, we might be tempted to want to sweep those under the rug. But, the Sfat Emet teaches, the deepest offering we can give to God is to offer our full selves, including the parts we don’t like. The work of continually trying to make ourselves better IS our service.
For me personally, this means moving from shame over my insecurities to a space of openness and offering. “God, here I am, again, still struggling. I’m trying to heal and be better, but I’m still figuring out how. I offer up to You my brokenness, my hope of healing, my desire to learn from my mistakes.”
While the Sfat Emet invites us as individuals to offer up this work of transformation, I believe his wisdom also applies to how we might strengthen and heal our institutions. Thankfully, within the PICO Network, a rising chorus of voices are asking for this change. PICO Deputy Director Denise Collazo recently urged us to see our failures as the most useful data we have for how to grow better. My colleague Alexandra Pineros-Shields often invites us to step with compassion and courage into places of pain and tension, counseling that we will be stronger when we are honest about where we feel stuck and what is holding us back.
I believe this work isn’t secondary, but central to our work for a more loving and just world. It means committing ourselves and our communities to teach each other not to hide our wounds, but instead to love each other into wholeness. To quote Ernest Hemingway, it means allowing ourselves to become “strong at the broken places.”
May we each have the courage to bring our whole selves to community, the ashes as well as the sweet savor. May we have the compassion to accept ourselves and those around us, even as we are perfectly imperfect. And may our admission of imperfection create a holy opening for growth, so we can heal ourselves and help repair our world.
Rabbi Margie Klein Ronkin serves as the spiritual leader of Congregation Sha’arei Shalom in Ashland and as director of clergy and leadership development for the Essex County Community Organization, an affiliate of Massachusetts Communities Action Network and the PICO/Faith in Action National Network. A graduate of Yale and Hebrew College Rabbinical School, she is the founder of Moishe Kavod House in Boston, a community of more than 600 Jews in their 20s and 30s dedicated to tikkun olam. She is a co-editor of “Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice” (Jewish Lights) and has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek and on CNN.
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