Shabbat Emor: With All Your Heart

Nobody sees a flower really; 

it is so small. 

We haven’t time, 

and to see takes time – 

like to have a friend takes time.

  – Georgia O’Keefe

Parashat Emor begins with a series of commands regarding the priests and their behavior: lo y’tama’ b’amav, they shall “not become defiled among their people”. (Lev. 21.1) Priests, who are set up as an elite among the people, must live up to the expectations of the position. This is a very ancient idea and still so relevant: when people occupy positions of high authority, we expect them to behave accordingly, and by that we mean ethically – and we are especially disappointed in them when they do not.

There’s an ethical dilemma, though, in that expectation: we who are not in that high position might come to see our own behavior as less significant. We might even say that it’s no big deal if we break a law, compared to if the priest/king/president/mayor does. 

Jewish tradition teaches differently. When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire, the Rabbis sought ways to keep our religious (which includes ethical) traditions relevant even without the institutions they had been based upon and grew from. Jewish teaching emphasizes that each of us can defile not only ourselves, but our people, when we act unethically. It takes the heart right out of the community and slowly but surely, that community declines into cynicism. 

No – rather than give up the institutions that support our acts and teachings, they brilliantly interpreted them:

No more sacrifices? the Rabbis taught that G*d welcomed the “service of the heart”, and that our obedience to the ethical teachings of our tradition would be just as acceptable an offering – as a gift of thanksgiving for the gift of life, or as an offering of atonement.

No more Temple altar? our tables in our homes shall become our altar, they said, and each of our homes a mikdash me’at, a “small sanctuary”. Our homes are to echo and reinforce our ethics.

No more priests? the Rabbis pointed out, G*d declares in the Torah that “you shall all be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy people.” (Ex.19.6) Without a central Jewish institution, it was – and is – up to each of us to maintain the ethical standards that were to be upheld by the priests.

It is clear that we are to see the ethical commands of Judaism as incumbent upon us all equally. And these mitzvot are that which will keep us from becoming “defiled among the people”. But how to keep track of all the specifics in the way we are meant to behave, not only judging others but ourselves, in a life so full of distraction? How to, as the familiar mitzvah puts it, follow the path “with all your heart”?

The text of parashat Emor itself offers us a way to do just that: “you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete” (Lev. 23.15) Jewish tradition has developed this into an ethic of counting our days – all our days, not just these 49 between Pesakh and Shavuot. But these 7 weeks have become for us a time to deepen whatever practice we have for noticing our days, for not letting them slip by completely unexamined. When we take time each day to consider our day, we see them, and the days themselves become fuller for us, richer – and we are more able to be conscious ethical actors in our lives, rather than helplessly pulled from place to place, commitment to commitment. 

Then we are more able to act with all the heart. And that is what makes each day, and each week, “complete” in the sense of the Torah’s phrase.

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Shabbat Kedoshim: Neither Inaccessible Nor Absurd

Our parashat hashavua (“section of the week”, i.e. the part of the Torah assigned by ancient Jewish tradition for this week in the Jewish calendar) begins with the most inaccessible and ludicrous of demands: 

“Speak to the People Israel and say to them, ‘be holy [kadosh], as I ‘ה your G*d am holy [kadosh]’.” (Lev. 19.2)

But when we investigate using our tried and true Jewish implements of interpretation, we find that what was thought was far from us is actually very near to us.

What does the Torah mean by kadosh, “holy”? The Rabbis who interpret our tradition, following the invitation to “turn it over and over, for everything is in it” (Pirke Avot 5.22) consider several options. To be kadosh, they offer, is perhaps to act like G*d, or, perhaps, it is to hold oneself separate. I suggest to you that it is both, and we must realize that there are times when to do one we must do the other.

This seems, as I said, either inaccessible or absurd. After all, don’t we strive for unity among all, and if so, why teach that we should hold ourselves separate? And acting like G*d, i.e. “holier than thou”, has a very bad ethical reputation in our world of political manipulation of religion.

But there is a different, more ancient insight from our tradition:

What does it mean to be “kadosh”, i.e. act like G*d?

R. Hama son of R. Hanina said: What does the Torah mean when it says You shall walk after the Lord your God? (Deut.13.5)  Is it, then, possible for a human being to walk after the Shekhinah [i.e. the Presence]; for has it not [also] been said: For HaShem your God is a devouring fire? (Deut.4.24)  

[It means that we should] to walk after the attributes of the Holy One of Blessing:

As G*d clothes the naked, for it is written: And ‘ה made for Adam and for Eve coats of skin, and clothed them (Gen.3.21)  

so you must also clothe the naked. 

The Holy One of Blessing visited the sick, for it is written: And ‘ה appeared unto Abraham by the oaks of Mamre (Gen.18.1)  

so you must also visit the sick. 

The Holy One of Blessing comforted mourners, for it is written: And it came to pass after the death of Abraham, that ‘ה blessed Isaac his son (Gen.25.11)  

so you must also comfort mourners. 

The Holy One of Blessing buried the dead, for it is written: And ‘ה buried [Moshe] in the valley (Deut.34.6)  

so you must also bury the dead. (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 14a)

What does it mean to be “kadosh” i.e. be separate?

The 11th century Ashkenazi authority Rashi, using the interpretive tool of noting juxtaposition of texts, suggests that to be kadosh in this manner is to separate ourselves from the acts which are prohibited in the preceding parashah. In other words, just do what the Torah commands.

But the 13th century Sephardi teacher Nahmanides sees a more general idea. He points out that the Torah commands the priests to maintain a certain level of constant separateness from that which would render them unable to do their assigned tasks in the sacred space. (From a teaching by Rabbi Dov Landau of Bar Ilan University, Israel)

The rabbis of antiquity, when asked how we were to go on after the sacred space in Jerusalem, the Temple, was destroyed, answered that the Torah also says you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy people (Ex.19.6). Therefore, Nahmanides teaches, we should all see ourselves as priests in terms of fulfilling the command to be kadosh.

Now more than ever as we struggle to know what is true and good in a world that drags everything into relativity,

as we face feelings of demoralization over the forces of greed and cynicism in our national and local social circles,

as an American politician encourages bigotry and violence against those who would oppose his urge to power,

There is a way forward, and it is neither inaccessible nor absurd: be kadosh by separating yourself from cynicism and greed and demoralization. Be kadosh by holding on to the teachings that formed your sense of ethics. There is nothing inaccessible or absurd in the clear demand of the mitzvah to clothe the naked, visit the sick, comfort the mourner, and, as our Gevurot prayer puts it, “keep faith with those who sleep in the dust”.

Shabbat Akharei Mot: A Little Light

Shabbat Akharei Mot begins in a poignant way, with a reminder of a tragic accident. We read about the death of Nadav and Abihu in parashat Shemini, only a few weeks ago, before Pesakh: young men, their first day on the job after much rigorous training, and something, all unforeseen, went terribly wrong. Akharei Mot, “after the death”, presents its contents in that context: the tragic death of the young, with much to live for, and much yet to do.

Accidents such as this tragedy might shake a modern Western American’s faith. Some say “what kind of G*d would allow such a thing?”. Others simply deny that there can be a G*d in a world where innocents suffer. 

It makes this parashah all the more compelling, because after the deaths of the two young men are noted, the text goes on to describe the next stage in the training of the surviving priests. When they died, their father, Aaron, withdrew from his public responsibility and took some private time to mourn. And then the life of the community went on, and Aaron went on with his service to his community as High Priest.

The father of the dead boys did not say “I quit because I have suffered unfairly.” Aaron did not say “I don’t believe in G*d because my sons died accidentally.” And he did not say “I proclaim myself against all organized religion because this is horrible and doesn’t make sense.” 

Those three responses to tragedy are understandable when they are made as a cry of pain, but they are not intelligible. In essence, all three are ways of cursing the darkness rather than struggling to light a candle.  

This is not to say that a better response would be “G*d knows best” or “there was a reason for this” or, G*d forbid, “G*d chose to take them because G*d loved them so much.” Those responses make G*d out to be an emotional terrorist.

There is a third possible response to unimaginable tragedy. Caught between the utter darkness of a father’s grief and his stance so close to G*d, in all its wholeness and joy, the Torah records that “Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10.3)

There is undeserved suffering in this world. There is much evil as well that we do to each other. But there is also much undeserved joy, and much good that we do to each other. Neither makes sense. There is a mystery at the heart of life that we can approach but will never discern. And in the face of that mystery there is nothing we can say. All we can do is to assert that while we cannot control, or even understand, why bad things happen, we can try to control and understand our responses – and we can choose to reach out to each other, to do what we can when we see suffering and alleviate it. And when all is dark, we can choose not to give in to it, to deny any hope of light or meaning or truth. We can choose to nurture the little light that we can see, if we look carefully, among ourselves.

That is why we gather in organized community and call it religious. It is there that we search together for hope, not certainty. Hope is all the light we have.