Ahead of Schedule – Parshat Emor 5775

Ahead of Schedule

Get ready to despise me. Time management has always been my strong suit. In school I was always two weeks ahead in my reading, and I always turned in assignments on time. I live with routine and schedule, and I try to plan out my weeks based on what I have to do and the time it will take to do each task.

Believe me, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows just because I’m a planner. With this ability to plan also comes a bit of a struggle when it comes to spontaneity, altering the plan, or setting aside time to have fun. My planner side has also been known to clash with my parent side. Having a child has put some strain on my time management, and as much as it may frustrate me, I find that sometimes I’m going to be late no matter how well I plan. As a family we try to balance flexibility with our schedule, sometimes staying up late for special occasions and sometimes sticking strictly to our routine, which we have learned is extremely important for our sanity.

My time management and affinity for schedules has served me well as a Jew. We are a people that lives by a calendar, with set times for celebrating, sleeping, mourning, praying, even for acknowledging learning. This point is driven home in the parshah we read this week, 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.

In chapter 23, verse 7 the text states, “On the first day you shall celebrate a sacred occasion: you shall not work at your occupations.” Specifically, this text is speaking about Passover; however, we receive a similar commandment for all of our Biblically-based holidays. “You shall do no work.” Aside from a rabbi whose occupation requires “work” on holy days (which is a totally different story) the Torah commands us to take a break. Each holiday, Shabbat included of course, requires that we stop. Often this means we are met with a dilemma. Do we end up taking a lot of days off of work for our religion, or do we try to compromise and do the best we can between our religious and secular worlds?

Jewish festivals ask us to challenge our own identity. Do you define yourself primarily by your work? If so, does that mean your career and daily responsibilities trump times of celebration? Or, do you define yourself by your total person, and if so, does that mean celebrations and sanctified time are coming at the expense of a fulfilling career?

I suggest that the time-outs observed in the Torah are meant to reduce stress, not compound it. They’re designed as reflective periods to be spent with family and community, and it’s up to the individual to find the appropriate life balance. This week we’re reminded that even the strictest of planned schedules needs occasional time out. Celebrating together, eating together, sharing in joy together – these are not just commandments, but a necessary part of sustaining who we are as Jews.

Animal, Mineral, Vegetable – Parshat Emor 5773

I have long struggled between my love of animals and, to be blunt, my love of meat.  I cry tears of sadness during the ASPCA commercials and tears of joy when my Uncle Larry ships us a salami from Romanian Kosher Sausage in Chicago.  Of course that’s hyperbole; I am in no way suggesting any similarity between humane food processing and the unthinkable animal cruelty that regrettably still exists in the world.

I do have many vegetarian friends who offer strong cases for their lifestyle choices, but I myself have never been compelled to be a vegetarian.  However, my regard for my food choices and their sources has its roots in the Torah and its requirements that we show respect to animals both as food and as living creatures.

This week’s parshah, parshat Emor, teaches us the value of intention.  We learn specifically about the laws surrounding the role of the priest and the extra steps the priest must take in order to remain eligible for that position. Each of these steps requires heightened sensitivity, first to what is ingested in the body, then to special times of the year such as holidays.  These laws require a keen awareness of how our days and weeks are spent, and theparshah ends by enumerating the punishments for those who do not adhere to this way of life.

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Poker Face – Parshat Emor 5772

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? 
Check out this wonderful website with a unique take on our parshah:http://midrashmanicures.com/

The Public I – Parshat Emor 5771

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:
  1. What’s an example of something you taught to someone else (family member, sibling, friend)?
  2. Do you think that some Jewish holidays are easier to observe than others? Why?