The Gathering Place – Parshat Emor 5779

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If I close my eyes, I can still bring myself back to the parking lot of the local Caribou Coffee on a Friday night. It was filled with Jewish teens from all different youth groups meeting up to end their week together and make weekend plans. This wasn’t a formal program, just the universal gathering place. We’d all meet there around 8 p.m. to hang out (and sometimes flirt), make plans and enjoy the scene as it were. I remember begging my parents to let me go out on a particular Friday night, and the only place they’d relent to was this parking lot because it was in fact a Jewish experience.

I know what you’re thinking. How is hanging out in the parking lot of a coffee shop on Shabbat a Jewish experience? First, rest assured spending money was not an issue. I was there so often the servers knew me and let me prepay for drinks (interpret loopholes how you will). Second, I was surrounded by an entire community of young Jews gathering to celebrate the end of a week, relax together, and build relationships. That, to me, is the definition of a Shabbat experience. It was our natural ritual to gather, and it mirrors the ritual the Torah presents us with this week.

As we read Parshat Emor, we once again find ourselves deep into the commandments surrounding Jewish practice. Parshat Emor focuses on the rules and regulations for the priests, along with the obligations of the Israelites. It covers the observance of certain holidays, including mentions about the holiness of Shabbat, other holidays we are to celebrate throughout the year, and the ways in which we are to treat one another and even animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them.

Chapter 23 begins the discussion of a calendar of sacred time. We receive the laws for Shabbat, and then Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It’s at these times of the year when everyone would gather together in the same place to check in spiritually. With each set of laws we are reminded that we are to take the pilgrimage to the central shrine and connect in community with God and with one another.

Our modern-day synagogues have replaced the ancient Temple in Jerusalem as gathering places. And in a way, I would argue the Caribou Coffee of my youth played a similar role. These moments of connection served to bring people back together after a hectic week (or month or year), and the Torah suggests that in doing so, we create a deeper, richer, more balanced Jewish life for ourselves.

Always More Room – Parshat Emor 5778

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There is a famous classroom activity/demonstration that is used to teach decision making and prioritization of goals and resources. The teacher shows the class a glass jar full of ping-pong balls and asks the class if the jar is full. Most students answer that it is. The teacher then pours beads into the jar, which fill in the gaps around the ping-pong balls. Now is the jar full? The class acknowledges it is. The teacher adds sand, filling in all the visible empty space between the beads. Now is the jar full? Some students might still agree, and others are starting to catch on. Finally, the teacher adds water, which soaks into the sand.

Here’s the usual breakdown that comes with the visual. Ping-pong balls represent the big, important aspects of life like family and friends. The beads are the smaller necessities like education and career. The sand reminds us that we still have room for other personal endeavors and hobbies, and the water reminds us that even when we feel full, there’s room for new experiences we might not anticipate.

This exercise is made even more illuminating when you realize that if you did it in reverse, the little things would take up so much space that there would be no room for the important things like family and friends. The second message is to be aware of your priorities and how much space they take up in your life.

This is a wonderful little demonstration, and you could even argue that it has its roots in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor. In this section of text, we are reminded 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 each other and animals. The majority of these rituals are meant to be done in public, with the entire community a part of them. The time and manner in which each ritual is performed is delineated by the Torah.

The laws of the holidays and sacred element of time pose an important question in chapter 23, verse 7. “On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.” Our holidays present us with a unique challenge in today’s world: How do we prioritize our time? Do we take a few hours to celebrate the holiday and then move back into our “regularly scheduled programming” or do we jump in and immerse ourselves in the sacred time prescribed to us? Or, as you might guess, perhaps there might be a happy medium.

There are a lot of holidays in Jewish tradition, which means a lot of time off from our secular world occupations (unless you’re clergy of course, when the holidays are your job). It is completely understandable that for some people, taking every holiday off just isn’t feasible. However, the Torah this week reminds us of our sacred obligation to those ping-pong ball sized values in our lives. What are the major ways in which you define yourself? How do you prioritize what’s important in your life? If you focus on your top values first, you’ll probably find there’s always room for more.

Public Figure – Parshat Emor 5777

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When I was growing up, my grandparents were not just congregants, but friends with our synagogue rabbis. One rabbi, Efry Spectre (z”l), was a particularly close friend. He was practically a part of our family. He was at birthday celebrations and major family simchas, and he was there for our family in times of need. He’d even come over for the Miss America broadcast every year and watch as I paraded around as a contestant. I didn’t know any better about what to expect of a rabbi, so this became my model for the rabbinate. We are family, we support one another, we celebrate together, and nothing makes me more excited than dancing the hora at a simcha with you.

But as much a part of your lives as your rabbi might be, of course there are boundaries to this relationship. Naturally, these boundaries are tested when a life in the public eye also means being intimately connected to others. This lesson is never more apparent than in the laws of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor. Emor 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 of the holiness of Shabbat, the holidays we 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 of the strength and power in experiencing these moments with a community.

One clear distinction that the Torah makes is when it comes to what the public figures, the kohanim (priests), can do with grief and loss. They’re put in the tough spot of having to reconcile their personal sorrow with their commitment to serving the people and modeling the acceptance of death as part of God’s plan. As we’re all unique individuals, priests included, grief hits us in a variety of ways, and to grieve in public is no easy task. For this reason, the Torah actually sets some limits.

Chapter 21, verse 1 teaches, “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron and say to them: None shall defile himself for any dead person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him: mother, father, son, daughter, brother or sister.” Traditionally, a priest is unable to be in the presence of a dead body, unless it is a family member, because of this prohibition. This rule stems from the fact that because priestly status is inherited from your family of origin, the rules are waived. In other words, for these most personal and intimate moments, the Torah reminds us that clergy, our spiritual leaders, have an obligation to turn inward and close down to cope with those moments of grief.

As a rabbi, you quickly learn that while the role of steadfast spiritual navigator is important, the best leaders are also relatable because they too are vulnerable. For clergy, the line between public and private can sometimes appear blurred, but the Torah reminds us in Parshat Emor that for both clergy and their congregants, family comes first.

I Got a Name – Parshat Emor 5776

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People ask me why I chose to keep my maiden name when I married Duncan. There are a few reasons. First, I was already making a name for myself as a Jewish educator, and I didn’t want to lose that name recognition. Second, my sister and I are the only grandchildren on my father’s side; thus, with us the Posen name ends. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I wanted to honor my family. My parents and my grandparents are the main reason I fell in love with Judaism. In sharing my passion with the world, I wanted to honor their work as well as their love and commitment to me. Being called “Rabbi Posen” brings me joy when I think about the great legacy of Jewish education and tradition in my family.

Well before I became a rabbi there were times when I was recognized as a Posen and reminded that my actions were a reflection on both me and my family. For better or worse, how we behave and act in the world reflects on the values of our upbringing and broader community. For example, when Bernie Madoff’s crimes were exposed, the Jewish community felt pain not only because Jewish organizations were victims of fraud, but also because it was one of our own committing these atrocities. At the opposite end of the spectrum, when gold medalist Aly Raisman became the most decorated American gymnast at the 2012 London Games, the Jewish community felt tremendous pride at what a member of “our tribe” had accomplished.

This week we read from parshat Emor, which begins with the specific rules and regulations of the priests as well as the laws about what we’re supposed to put into our bodies. The text continues with an in-depth look at the laws of our holidays and special times and concludes with the punishments brought upon those who have broken mitzvot of trust in relationships. With the laws about the priesthood comes one of the defining mitzvot about representing the Jewish community publicly.

Chapter 21, verse 6 states in reference to the priest as leader: “They shall be holy to their God and not profane the name of their God; for they offer the Lord’s gifts, the food of their God, and so must be holy.” This verse teaches that we are obligated to act in a way that reflects well on God, the Jewish people, and our traditions. When we act in this way, in the manner of kiddush HaShem, we are acting in a way that adds goodness and justice into the world. In doing so, this brings pride to our name and to our people. On the other hand, we are also taught to refrain from acting in a way that would bring dishonor to God, our people, and our traditions.

Parshat Emor, like so many other parts of our text, reminds us of the power in our actions. Like the priests in Torah and Temple times, today each of us is an ambassador for our families and our religion. You have the sacred responsibility of putting your best foot forward and bringing only joy, positivity, and good to the name and people you represent.