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.

shabbat Emor: the price of disrespect

Parashat Emor includes, coincidentally, the mitzvah (command) of Sefirat haOmer, the counting of the omer (a sheaf of barley). The original idea is probably agricultural: during the ongoing barley harvest, bringing a sheaf from each day’s harvest for a formal count may have been some kind of ritual effort to keep the harvest abundant. It is true that we sometimes delight in counting out or otherwise measuring that which we are excited about, or care deeply about.

Today, erev Shabbat, is the 34th day of the Omer; yesterday was the 33rd, which is a minor holy day known by a name derived from the count: Lag BaOmer literally means “33 of the omer”. (Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and so every Hebrew number can also be pronounced. Thus the names of the holy days Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, and Tu b’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat.)

  וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה:  שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה

Count for yourself from the day after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the omer to wave; seven complete weeks

  עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת, תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם; וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה, לַיהוָה

until the morrow after the seventh week, count off fifty days; and then present a new meal offering unto HaShem. (Lev 23.15-16)

Lag baOmer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, marks the end of the period of semi-mourning which characterizes the first 32 days of the counting period. Why should the first 32 days after the Pesakh Seder be a somber time, when by traditional minhag weddings are not celebrated, beards are not cut, and parties and dancing are considered inappropriate?

The traditional explanation is that during this time period, long ago in Israel, 24,000 students of the celebrated Rabbi Akiba died of plague. The Talmud does not stop with the story, though – it goes on to give a reason:

“Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand students and all of them died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with respect. It is taught that they all died between Passover and Shavuot, and that they all suffered bitter deaths” (TalmudYevamot 62b). 

It may seem outrageous that so many would die as a result of being disrespectful, but consider the ancient teaching that “because of baseless hatred, the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from our land”. (Talmud Yoma 9a) Much of what happens to us, insists our Jewish sources of learning, has to do with our morality. Certainly the prophets would agree. After all, it’s not as if we are asserting that if we behave badly, a giant hand will appear from heaven and punish us in some way; the prophets insist that, rather like losing one’s kingdom for the want of a horseshoe nail, the integrity of our world depends upon apparently small, small things. After all, we are taught that the entire world does rely upon three things: study, internalization of that which is learned, and acting with kindness at all times – TorahAvodah, and Gemilut Hasadim.

Whatever the source of sadness that echoes through the Jewish calendar at this time of year, it is real. The traditional minhagim restricting joy during these 33 days (it lets up after Lag BaOmer) are a haunting reminder of a grief that is no longer remembered directly. Like a yahrzeit, it comes yearly to remind us that we have mourned, as a people, the consequences of immoral behavior toward each other. 

On this Shabbat, consider the destructive consequences of your smallest acts of disrespect toward others – your colleagues, friends, children, parents, strangers – and seek to replace them with kindness. May we all become more mindful of the power we wield.