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Parashat Emor

05/08/2020 02:33:57 PM


Shabbat Shalom!

Today is 30 days, which is four weeks and two days of the Omer. The kabbalistic realm of this Shabbat strength within majesty or humility.

            In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor, we see some more rules laid out for the Kohanim, including the rule that a Kohein must not come near a corpse or enter a graveyard except for the closest of relatives. The language of the Torah is that being near to death “profanes” or “defiles” the priest. However, in our current world, we might also see these practices through the lens of pekuach nefesh – saving a life.

            Currently, the rules for funerals vary between states and even cemeteries, but all are restricting in some way who may enter and how traditional Jewish burials may be done. While I personally have been fortunate thus far to not have to face these quandaries directly, I see other rabbis reporting back to professional groups how they officiated funerals by Zoom – either where they were the only one at the burial site or where the immediate family of the deceased was physically present but the officiant was not. It sounds lonely and it must add that much more stress to the already terribly difficult task of burying a loved one (or shepherding the bereaved through their grief). And yet, we know it must be done for the sake of health and respecting the current physical distancing rules.

            Many Jewish people still track their family lines back to the Kohanim and many such Jewish men still will not enter a cemetery other than for the funeral of an immediate family member. With the innovations developed around the expansion of prohibitions on cemetery attendance, more people may be able to gather and support each other in grief than ever before. Already, people are reporting how they were able to attend funerals, memorials, or shiva visits for far-flung friends, how they would not have been able to get a flight in time or afford the airfare and attend in person. When many of us are able to go back to attending such events in person, will we continue to make these adaptations for loved ones that would otherwise not be able to attend, whether for distance or halakha?

            As we reflect on the constrictions of the Kohanim described in the Torah, let us allow this moment to think ahead to a new era of Jewish practice. Let us feel strengthened by the humility of this moment that we may continue to grow a Judaism that is inclusive and adaptive, yet rooted in tradition.


         The latter half of Parashat Emor describes the correct rituals to mark the Jewish festivals at their appointed times. It even commands us to be happy at Sukkot, which I always find funny because emotions really cannot be commanded. The parasha includes in this listing the importance of counting the omer, too! Leviticus 23:15 reads: “You shall count for yourselves from the morrow of the Shabbat, from the day on which you bring the Omer offering; seven complete weeks they shall be”, on which Rabbi DovBer, an early Chasidic master, comments, “The word sefirah, “counting,” also means “illumination.” On each of the forty-nine days of Sefirat HaOmer (the “Counting of the Omer”), we refine, develop and illuminate another of the forty-nine traits of our soul.”

            While we spend these 49 days in quarantine, there has never been a better year to refine, develop, and illuminate our best traits. And yet, with all this ample time many of us have right now for meditation and self-reflection, it’s also an incredibly stressful time in which focusing and trying to better ourselves may be exceedingly hard.

            This I think is one of the benefits of the set times and rituals of our festivals. Although we cannot command ourselves to feel happiness, we can find a grounding and centering of ourselves in celebrating our holidays at their proper times. Some traditions may have to be adapted for our current situation, and thankfully we have so much technology to help with that, but we can still mark them with so much Jewishness and online community, that the happiness and spiritual refreshment just may follow.

            Of course, there is something to be said for pushing back celebrations or redoing them when we can gather in person. Some historians believe the first Chanukah was actually a belated Sukkot, because the Maccabees were too busy fighting a war in Tishrei to celebrate properly in it’s time. Today was Pesach Sheni, a Torah-proscribed “make up day” for those who missed Passover the first time. Our synagogue often celebrates holidays on the weekend closest to accommodate busy schedules. So a hard and fast clinging to the commandments of this week’s Torah portion may not always be the best approach. But at this moment, when everything already feels so off-kilter – especially our sense of time – celebrating our holidays on their appointed days may be exactly what we need right now.

            As Leviticus 23:2 names the “appointed times” of the “callings to holiness,” the Chasidic Masters add: “The festivals are ‘callings of holiness’ (mikra’ei kodesh), in the sense that each is a landmark in time at which we are empowered to call forth the particular holiness or spiritual quality embedded within it. On the first Passover, for example, God granted us the gift of freedom. On the first Shavuot, God gave us the Torah; on Rosh Hashanah, God established Godself as the sovereign of the universe; on Yom Kippur, we received the gift of teshuvah; and so on. But freedom, wisdom, awe, joy, peace, and the other Divine gifts granted in the course of our history are constant needs of the soul; they are the spiritual nutrients that sustain us in our journeys through life. God embedded these qualities within the very substance of time, and set appointed times at which they can be accessed. Each year, when we arrive at the juncture of time where a particular spiritual quality has been embedded, we are granted the ability to access it once again. The special mitzvot of each festival are the tools with which we may ‘call forth the holiness of the day: eating matzah on Passover unearths the gift of freedom, sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah calls forth its quality of awe, [studying together on Shavuot recalls the majesty of Revelation] and so on with all the appointed times of G‑d.’”

            As we wind down our omer time and come up on another holiday that will have to be celebrated with physical distance from our friends and kehillah, let us find strength in the commandments of our people to celebrate and rejoice at these proscribed moments. Even if it feels weird at first, may we find great joy and spiritual refreshment in these rituals, and may we celebrate again in their proper time in person next year. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781