I’ll never forget what happened the first day of rabbinical school orientation. We all gathered at Rabbi Artson’s house to meet the dean, our classmates, and other faculty. We started by going around and sharing our names and a little bit of the dreams of our future careers. Then Rabbi Artson began the speech that every year stops first year rabbinical students in their tracks. “From this moment forward, you are a public figure, you are a rabbi, people will see you, meet you, and expect more of you. As of right now, your life is on public display.” I remember at that moment feeling my heart rise up into my throat and my head sending me mixed signals between the rush of thoughts that kept me transfixed and the fear that wanted me to leave.
In many ways, being part of the clergy world is living life with paparazzi, albeit less violent paparazzi. Clergy live under the magnifying glass, and it’s not uncommon for congregants to expect them to be holier, more observant, and certainly more knowledgeable than they are. However, the reality is that in Judaism, the clergy observe the same laws and traditions as the congregation. Of course it’s only natural to want your community leaders to set a good example, but at the same time, a professional life dedicated to the Jewish religion isn’t any holier or “more Jewish” than the lives of congregants and community members.
Parshat Emor, this week’s portion, focuses on the rules and regulations for the priests along with the obligations of the Israelites. It covers the observation of certain holidays, including mentions about the holiness of Shabbat. At first glance, the priests appear to be singled out as holy. Chapter 21, verse 8 states that “you must treat them (the priests) as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord who sanctify you am holy.” But this parallels the imperative given in Vayikra 19:2, where God demands that all the Israelites be holy because God is holy. So while the priests are recognized with special obligations, they are still included in the whole of Israel. They must still observe Shabbat and all of its holiness, and they must be a part of the yearly celebrations of holidays.
We learn here that rabbis and cantors are no different from other Jews. We rabbis may have chosen to dedicate our lives to the passion we have for our religion and sharing and teaching about its beauty, but learning, engaging, and participating is no easier for us than it is for any other Jew. Rabbis are people too without special powers, obligations, or shortcuts. The text instead implores the people to consider rabbis as Klei Kodesh, as “holy vessels.” The idea is that clergy should serve as the guidebook to opening up Jewish learning and living, not the pedestal of perfection they could never live up to.
Each of us has the ability to Emor, to speak our mind, to ask questions about Shabbat, holidays, leaders, and to use those questions as the vessels that bring holiness to life for each of us. Parshat Emor teaches us that we all have the unique ability to be teachers. “Rabbi,” literally translated, means “my teacher,” the person that I’ve elected not to stand in place of me, but to guide me, to teach me how to unwrap the gift of Jewish living and learning.
Family Discussion Questions:
- What’s an example of something you taught to someone else (family member, sibling, friend)?
- Do you think that some Jewish holidays are easier to observe than others? Why?