As a new rabbi, I am always looking for areas where I can improve my performance. I often reflect, thinking about what I might do differently the next time I teach a lesson, give a d’var Torah, or offer advice. One thing I’ve been working on is my poker face. You might wonder why a rabbi would need a poker face. You see, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and my emotions often give me away. But in rabbinical school, we were instructed to keep our emotions in check. Who wants to see the rabbi cry at the wedding she’s officiating? The problem is that for someone who tears up at Folgers commercials, keeping a straight face isn’t always easy. When I am in a fantastic mood, my face lights up, and when I’m worried, it doesn’t take a mind reader to see it in my eyes. So the question is where is the middle ground and what does the Torah have to say about public displays?
This week we read parshat Emor, which reminds us about the laws for purification of the priests, the holidays we are to celebrate throughout the year, and the ways in which we are to treat one another and animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them. To this day, we do not say the Barchu or mourner’s kaddish while praying alone because there is a certain power in experiencing these moments with a community.
Chapter 22, verses 31-32 teaches “Therefore shall you keep my commandments, and do them; I am the Lord. Neither shall you profane my holy name; but I will be hallowed among the people of Israel; I am the Lord who hallows you.” These verses come at the end of a long section about how we should treat one another and live our lives. Late 19th and early 20th century commentator David Tzvi Hoffman suggests that the public performance of a mitzvah not only benefits the one who performs it, but also affects those who see it. Our actions model for others what appropriate behavior is and have the power to send positive or negative feelings towards others.
The sages teach in the Talmud that there is no greater achievement for a Jew than acting in a way that causes others to praise and respect the God of Israel and the ways of Torah. Think about this the next time you hear someone saying mourner’s kaddish. Consider the anger, the sadness, the loss that this person is feeling and the faith it takes to stand up and praise God. When my father died four weeks to the day after my grandfather, saying kaddish was terribly painful. At one moment I was a part of the congregation, and the next, their voices were all silent while I said those words to honor my father. While my pain couldn’t be hidden, I also know that being a part of the community helped me to heal, and perhaps that public act helped in some way to strengthen someone else’s faith.
Sometimes a poker face is appropriate, and as a rabbi it can come in handy. But remember that faith isn’t about hiding your emotions or pushing them away. Faith is the recognition that there is holiness in every emotion and in every moment.
ללמוד To Learn: ללמד To Teach: לשמור To Keep: לעשות To Do: Parshat Emor details the laws of our holidays and the behaviors of our leaders. The mitzvot about our Holidays lays out for us the value of time, the small moments and actions that when noticed can change the course of our days and years. As we continue to count the Omer, these 7 weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, become aware of the value of each day. Are you counting up to something, like we do for the Omer? Or are you counting down, away from the starting point? Do you count the day when you’re finished with it, or when it just begins?
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