Parashat Emor 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Emor
By Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12)I cannot recall a time when we have been more preoccupied with time than during this COVID 19 pandemic.  How much longer until we… can get our vaccines? Travel safely again? See family beyond our bubble? No longer need to mask up? Be back in person together in Shul? We grope to find some certainty amidst a time of great uncertainty.

Yet, our preoccupation with time is not a new phenomenon. We as Jews have always been keenly aware of time. Rabbi Jill Hammer describes the Issacharites as “knowers of the wisdom of time” and that they had knew about “the shifting of light across time.” (The Jewish Book of Days at p. 265).

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor, delves into the importance of time. “Speak to B’nai Yisrael and say to them; the appointed times of HaShem which you shall proclaim them as holy assemblies; these are my appointed times.” (Leviticus 23:2).  Rashi addresses the need to regulate these appointed times so that the Israelites should become practiced in them. Through regulation and repeated practice our Shalosh Regalim – Pesah, Shavuot, and Sukkot, along with Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shabbat, become ingrained in us. There is a sense of consistency and reasonable expectation regarding our celebrations.

This sense of consistency is bolstered by how the architects of the Jewish calendar connected our appointed times to the cycle of the natural world. “The voice of the Divine comes to us not only from text and history but also from trees, the sky, the waxing and waning of the moon, and the wondrous and fragile functioning of our own bodies.” (Hammer, The Jewish Book of Days at p. 3)

It would be a glaring omission to engage in a discussion of time within Judaism without honoring Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time…Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of the year…Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time. (emphasis added) (The Sabbath at p. 8).

As there is an architecture of time, a logical flow that makes sense within each year, we also tap into time to connect us over centuries and millennia; to our past and to our future. “Over and over again, the Tradition [the Torah enumerating our appointed times] seeks to transport its adherents back through time and place, engaging sight and sound, taste and touch, mind and mood, that we might truly be able to share something of the experiences that made us what we are.” (Dr. Ronald Brauner, Thinking Jewish: The Art of Living in Two Civilizations at p. 52)

As our appointed times connect us to our past it is also a chain connecting us to our future. “The Jewish religion is founded on the [D]ivine assurance and human belief that the world will be perfected…Through the Jewish way of life and the holidays, the Torah seeks to nurture the infinite love and unending faith needed to sustain people until perfection is achieved.” (emphasis added) (Rabbi Irving Greenberg, The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays at p. 18) “The covenant of Israel turns the Exodus into an ongoing process…. Judaism proposes to achieve its infinite goals [redemption] in finite steps.” (Greenberg at p. 68) The flow of Jewish time places humans within a Divine plan, working in partnership with G-d toward a state of perfection; albeit at a very slow clip.

Yet, since a hallmark of Jewish time is its consistency and contribution to our sustainability, we must also recognize the fissures in that flow of time. As we experience and doggedly adhere to the gift of our Jewish calendar, there are disruptions that challenge our sense of connection and a Divine plan. These disruptions are most associated with miracles, a sense of direct Divine intervention that seems to occur outside of the natural order of daily life. I also see these disrupting forces as moments when our role in the Divine plan is most challenged.

As the country waited in nervous anticipation for the verdict regarding the defendant Derek Chauvin in the George Floyd case, I was reminded that we have been living for over a year in a state of disruption. Both the murder of George Floyd along with the tragically  numerous loss of life and isolation inflicted upon us by COVID 19 have been disruptions that both have challenged our ability to be in the flow of time and compelled us to ponder a meaningful response.

The death of George Floyd has likewise been a disrupting event that has dramatically impacted engagement over issues of policing and systemic racism. I cannot remember a time when so many people both within and outside of my congregation have asked me how they can be involved on a particular issue of concern.

The pandemic has forced us to find new ways to preserve our sense of community and connectedness. For my congregants, marking time has taken on new meaning and new importance. It is the Jewish calendar that has kept us connected. Congregants discovering Talmud for the first time through a quick dose of Daf Yomi every morning has become a welcome event. Counting the Omer and following our Jewish calendar in  Rabbi Jill Hammer’s Jewish Book of Days have all become welcome additions to our sense of community and our connection to the long, meaningful arc of Jewish time.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, as he urges adherence to the Jewish calendar also honors covenantal compromise as a needed marriage of the ideal and the real. We honor the gift of Jewish time to both sustain us and give us comfort when our lives are most disrupted, and we respond to the disruption as a needed wake-up call to make needed change and live out the highest ideals of our covenant with G-d.
Rabbi Doug Alpert (’12) is the rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami-Kansas City’s urban, progressive synagogue. He is the immediate past president of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Kansas City as well as Missouri Healthcare for All.