By Rabbi Ira F. Stone
Much of Parshat Emor is taken up with laying out the Sabbath and festival cycle that is familiar to many of us.
This separation of the time of our experience, through the weekly and yearly cycle, corresponds to the larger theme of the chapters that follow the great moments in the prior parshiyot in which we are commanded to be holy and in which holiness is defined primarily as seeking justice, culminating in the injunction to love others as we love ourselves.
The system of progressing through time — in an order that punctuates what might otherwise be an anonymous passage into moments in which we interrupt ourselves — reminds us of the way in which the divine has interrupted our experience of history. It turns it from a mere record of events into a catalogue of obligations.
While much of the law in Parshat Emor pertains to the priesthood and the priestly families, the laws governing the cycle of the year appear to be the way in which the average Israelite is able to participate in demonstrating his or her commitment to the same ideals of holiness that animate the life of the priests. Thus, the laws of Sabbath and holy days transcend the physical and temporal boundaries of the Tabernacle and Temple, and continue to play their role in the spiritual life of Israel down to our own time.
First and foremost, that role requires that we allow ourselves to be interrupted. This is not incidental, but crucial. Only when we actively acknowledge that time is not ours to possess, that time does not submit to us, but we to time, can we begin to look away from our own self-interest and therefore begin to acknowledge the claim of love that the other has on us.
Second, allowing ourselves to be interrupted by the sacred moments in Israel’s spiritual journey from Egypt to the holy land that is inscribed in the Shabbat and holy day cycle, also allows the content of that journey to fill our lives. It is precisely the education in justice and responsibility that might be called the curriculum of the wilderness as the Torah describes that journey, which remains the curriculum for spiritual achievement in our own time and our own lives.
Observance of this curriculum through the cycle of the week and of the year is not restricted to remembering only the historical events that may have precipitated it, but the lessons learned from those events in the dramatic experience of hearing the divine throughout that journey. The idea is, then, to hear the divine in real-time and not merely in memory.
It is therefore appropriate that each Sabbath and each festival serve as an opening back to the voice that only in last week’s parsha called us to be holy — for the divine itself is holy — and further instructed us that it is through the enactment of justice and love that holiness is to be enacted.
We are at present between two great festivals, Pesach and Shavuot. Both resound with what I have called the curriculum of the journey. One begins in freedom, and the other tempers freedom with responsibility. Parshat Emor occurs in the midst of the handbook for worship that emerges on the journey through the wilderness.
Despite all of the details in the Book of Leviticus on priestly ritual, we have learned that the purpose of worship is to act in justice and love. Being between the festivals situates us back, as it were, on the journey. Can we, indeed, manage to make our way from the banks of the Sea of Reeds to the foot of Mount Sinai? Can we fulfill that which Moses requested of Pharaoh: “Let my people go, that they may worship”?
Finding ourselves immersed in the details of ordinary time it becomes more and more difficult to imagine that it is possible to interrupt it. It feels as though it is sweeping over us like a wave in which we are threatened to drown. The chutzpah of Jewish tradition from the biblical text to the present is that not only can we interrupt time, but that it is our ability to interrupt time that fulfills the very meaning of our being human.
We are empowered to allow ourselves to listen to the voice of the divine, not merely to listen, but also to learn and most importantly, to act: to allow holiness to touch the world again through our commitment to justice and to love.
Rabbi Ira Stone is rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel and rosh yeshiva of the Center for Contemporary Mussar. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.