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Emor 5783              May 6, 2023 

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom.

Parshat Emor is part of the holiness code that makes up the central part of the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. While Yom Kippur was addressed last week in Achray Mot, this week we are introduced to the entire list of holidays on the Jewish calendar. First of all, like any calendar, this is only the list of the oldest holidays; there have been more added over time, some historical dates, some just commemorations.

The calendar in our parsha marks holidays and ties them to the agricultural calendar. Pesach is the spring planting. Shavuot marks the wheat harvest. Sukkot marks the fall harvest of fruits and vegetables. There is no hint here of historical commemorations. No mention of the Exodus, the giving of the Torah, or wanderings in the desert. Clearly the historical meaning for the holidays came later.

We get, in our parsha this week, how the calendar connects us to the festivals and how the festivals are connected to us. God/Torah tells us what we are to celebrate, but we announce when the holidays will occur. There is a give and take between time and humanity that we should not overlook. Rabbi Art Green of Boston explains: “Our relationship with the festival seasons is indeed a mutual one. Each time of year calls us to a special sort of holiness, brings forth from us a kavvanah, an inner intent, that can only be expressed through them. Each festival has a special spirit, carried by its description in the Torah, by its prayers, by the aroma of holiday foods, but also by the memories built up in us of all the previous times we have celebrated it and the people with whom we shared it. All of these call out to us. But we also call to the festivals themselves, anticipate their coming, prepare for them, welcome them as guests into our homes and hearts.”

This same mutual relationship with the holidays, not surprisingly, is reflected in our relationship with our liturgy. There is a give and take that needs to exist between the prayers in our Siddur and we who are reciting/praying these words. Just like holidays are dates recorded on the calendar, prayers are just words printed in a book. But just like holidays also reflect the smells, the emotions, and the anticipation of time, so too, our liturgy calls us to review, reflect and reaffirm the direction we want to take in our lives.

Hasidic/mystical tradition picks up on a verse in Exodus where God calls to Moses and explains who Moses is addressing. The Torah reads, “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but my name Y-H-V-H, I did not make myself known to them.” This seems to imply that there is a process by which we can come to know God. We are on a spiritual journey that takes us through not just the calendar, but through all of life. The early stage of this journey, the Hasidic/Mystics call, “Ze-ir Anpin, the “lesser face.” This refers to the God of our childhood. Unable to comprehend anything larger than our world, we think of God as bounded by the six dimensions that describe our world. This is the male God with a long beard that sits in heaven and looks down to judge everything that we do or think. When we are children, we think in terms of black and white. We think of what we need, and we go out and grab it for ourselves.

The earliest Hasidic book, the “Toldot Yaakov Yosef” claims we are born as wild creatures, just taking from the world and not giving anything back. Our quest for love and power is a part of this early stage of human development. Only as we mature, does a “good inclination” appear within us. Children with this approach to God need a God that rewards and punishes so that we can keep our selfish and needy instincts in control. This God, the El Shaddai, the God of the Ze-ir Anpin, the lesser face, is not the only way to see God. Once we pass out of childhood, we realize that God is more than what our young brains require. As we become adults, a new understanding of God, God with an ineffable name, Y-H-V-H, opens our minds to the state the Hasidim call, “Da’at,” it is more than just understanding and knowledge, it raises our minds to a sense of awareness of God. This is the level of Moses. It is only with reflection about Da’at, can we be ready to receive Torah on Mt. Sinai. This is not a God of judgement; this is a God that nurtures us and is the source of all that is Good in the world.

This name of God is not a name at all. It is a verb. It points us to actions in the past, present and future. It demands of us free will to make choices and choose wisely. It is not bound by time or space. This name of God is universal and can be found in all who are seekers of God. This is the spiritual journey that we must take if we are to move from what is tribal to what is universal. Each of us must follow our own path.

Rabbi Green, in his newest book, “Well of Living Insights” writes, “Each of us has to engage in that struggle in a unique way. For some, the God of childhood grows naturally and matures with us, leading us toward that da’at. Others, perhaps the majority, never learn that there is a more mature approach to faith. Once they outgrow the childhood fantasy, religion is simply cast aside. For still others, the hold of childhood fantasies is so great that “God” becomes the Pharaoh of our inner “Egypt.” Then we need to escape His rule, to flee into the wilderness, where we will gain the freedom needed to discover in our own way that indeed “the whole earth is filled with His glory.”

Once we understand God, we can turn to prayer. There has always been a great controversy between the Philosophers and the Mystics about prayer. The Philosophers believe that since God is perfect, God cannot be affected by the actions of human beings. God is beyond human capacity to be changed by anything we humans do. But the Mystics affirm that God “needs” our prayers.

Rabbi Green writes, “In Hasidism, the notion manifests itself especially in attitudes toward prayer. True, prayer, the early Hasidic masters taught, is never for oneself, but always for “the sake of the Shekhinah.” To them, that referred to the divine presence that fills the world: “She is in need of our help in prayer.” But can we do anything today with this notion of “worshipping for the sake of Y-H-V-H, regarding both the ritual mitzvot and prayer? Do they indeed have a meaning beyond that of self, community, and Jewish people? I think this can work best if we come to see it on an internal (verses vertical) plane. This is not a process taking place “up there” but “in here.”

Prayer is less an action as it is an “experience” and each of us have our own way to experience prayer. This is not about making sure every word we recite is correct and with its proper nusach or melody. This is about creating harmony between the liturgy and our hearts. This is about ideas that resonate within our souls. We work to find the part of God that is within ourselves only to discover, as Abraham Joshua Heschel says, that God is in search of us. Prayer has the capacity to create the relationship between the human and the divine.

Some people are able to do this by reading the words in the siddur. The words speak in the language of poetry and are like old friends, so that the relationship with the words reflects our relationship with God. The emotions that the words call up in our hearts are reflected back at us through their connection to the divine within. We are connected, in bonds of friendship and understanding with all those who have prayed these words over the centuries. They found what we have found and their voices echo in our prayers, like the festivals we observe echo the relationship between time and humanity.

Other people react to the words of the siddur differently. Such people scan each page, looking for the word or the phrase that suddenly jumps out of the page and insists that this concept be examined deeply. What does it mean to us when we say Baruch/ Blessed? What do we mean when we say Shema/Listen? When we pray “Adon Olam,” the word “Olam” could refer to our world, our universe; or it could refer to time, to eternity. When we sing Adon Olam are we calling the Master of the World/Universe or are we calling to the Master of Time, the Eternal One? Which one will we reflect on today and which one will we consider next week? The words are the same, but they resonate differently depending perhaps on what we have experienced on the days in between.

Finally, Rabbi Green writes, “I come into this moment as a whole self. All my needs are here, all my loves, my fears, my joys and celebrations, my wounded pride, my little victories and defeats in the course of daily living, my beauty and my ugliness, everything to which I am attached – I bring them all to You and cast them at your feet. Here I am, with all my broken bits of baggage, Do something with them. Help me pick up the pieces and put this package back together again. Give me something to bind up my wounds so that I can manage to stumble through another day, maybe even a little better – a little more whole and less hurting, please! – than I did yesterday.”

The Psalm may say that “I look to the mountains, from where will come my help?” but help is not found on a mountain. The help we need, the healing we require is already inside of us. It is waiting for us to find it, to call to it in prayer and to open a path for it to heal our soul. These words of our Siddur show us the way that the ancient Jews used to find their way inside. We too can walk these paths. We don’t need to be fluent in Hebrew. We don’t need to understand the translation. We don’t need to read them in a correct order. We need to read them with our need for connection (this is why we have a minyan – to help us make a connection). We need to read them with all our heart and soul and might. We need to read them with all our brokenness and pain, with all our joy and celebration.

We need to pray.

And as we search for God, we find that God is searching for us. To heal us and to set us free.

As we read at the beginning of our personal prayer, the Amida: “Adonai, open my lips that my mouth may speak your praise.” May God open our lips and our hearts as we say …

Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sat, June 22 2024 16 Sivan 5784