Question: Usually, when Torah reports that God speaks, it uses the verb vayidaber, God spoke words. In Parshat Emor, Torah uses the word vayomer, God spoke. What does the Torah teach by shifting to vayomer, speech without words?
Philosopher William James: The foundation of religious experience lies in temporary mystical experiences that come upon human beings without human agency, as if a divine power reaches out. Mystical experiences seem to occur out of time, in spaces that open up in the fabric of life. In such spaces, a deeper meaning of life is revealed. When ordinary consciousness returns, a sense of the deeper meaning somehow stays. People say they have been permanently changed, that they carry new knowledge with them – and yet, they are utterly unable to put that knowledge into words.
Philosopher Baruch Spinoza: Our teacher Moshe often received communications from God in words. Still, words have shortcomings. They require a physical medium. God delivers them through a voice, and people hear them through their ears. Voice and ears are both created things. Thus, any message delivered in words is twice removed from God the creator. Only mind-to-mind communication is undistorted revelation.
Conclusion: Words and concepts do shape spiritual experience. But no words will speak to everyone, and no practice will endure for all time. Thus we must at times let go of words and concepts, and be open to new dimensions of experience. As we grow spiritually, we alternate between the more directive vayidaber and the more open-ended vayomer.
Stability and Change (5771/2011)
What a week of changes and challenges in current events! Elections showcasing the diverse Canadian political landscape, the death of Osama bin Laden, beginnings of a unified Palestinian government, and more. So much, changing so quickly.
Against this background, this week Parshat Emor reminds us of things that are much older and slower to change. Emordescribes the cycle of Jewish holidays, holidays testifying to events that took place over 3,000 years ago. Although many of the historical details of these events are lost to us, the spiritual messages connect us with our ancestors, reminding us of some qualities of the human spirit that have not changed. Shabbat reminds us of the wonder of the natural world; Pesach of the passion for self-determination; Sukkot of the ingenuity of coping with hard times; Rosh Hashanah of the need for renewal. Some important values endure through many social changes.
At the same time, Parshat Emor also reminds us that some values ought to change. When it introduces the principle “an eye for an eye” it pointedly avoids saying, “This is an eternal law.” Instead, it is offered as a legal principle that might well change as case law triggers a more compassionate response.
Emor reminds us that Jewish tradition shows respect for both the well-known past and the unknown future. This week at Or Shalom, we welcome two Jewish youth into adulthood as we celebrate the bar and bat mitzvah of Caleb Cohen and Artemis Walden. We share with them the past, and place the future in their hands!
Torah instructs us to observe the ripening grain for 49 days, or seven weeks, between the second day of Pesach and the day before Shavuot. As we observe, we celebrate the unfolding of God in nature, and the nourishment that comes to us in seasonal cycles. This practice is called sefirat ha’omer, counting the measure of the ripening grain.
Today, in the absence of the Temple, the practice of sefirat ha’omer has been reframed through a wonderful Hebrew pun. Sefirat ha’omer has become sefirot ha’omer, observing the sefirot, divine energies, in own inner lives. Each week we focus on a different sefirah, and each day of that week we focus on a different quality of the sefirah.
This week’s sefirah is hod, gratitude. This Shabbat we are invited to observe gevurah sheh b’hod, the discipline of gratitude. Parshat Emor, the week’s Torah portion, reminds us of five festivals during the Jewish year devoted to expressing gratitude. On Shabbat, we say “thank you” for creation; on Pesach (Passover), for freedom; at Shavuot(Feast of Weeks) for the spring harvest; at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippurfor forgiveness and renewal of relationship; and on Sukkot (Feast of Booths) for the fall harvest.
Each festival celebrates something we can too easily take for granted as part of our natural habitat. Each festival has its own discipline: rituals engaging all our senses in the practice of appreciating a simple every day miracle. Through these rituals, may we learn the discipline of gratitude and never take our blessings for granted!
The Wave (5768/2008)
In Parshat Emor, we are instructed to count the omer for seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot:
“When you come to the land which I give to you, and shall reap its harvest, then you shall bring an omer [measure] of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest who shall wave the omer before the Lord.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:10-11)
What is the meaning of this “wave”?
Rabbi Chama Bar Rabbi Ukva in the name of Rabbi Yossi Bar Chanina: The priest would wave it to and fro and up and down. The motions to and fro symbolize that the entire world belongs to God. The motions up and down symbolize that the heavens and the lower worlds belong to God.
Rabbi Simon Bar Yehoshua: The priest waves it to and fro to stop the harsh winds, and he waves it up and down to halt the harsh dew.
Rabbi Avi Weinstein: The Arabic name for the hot desert winds that afflict Israel in spring and summer is chamsin, which means “fifty” — the number of days between Passover and Shavuot. When these winds occur on consecutive days, they can utterly destroy a harvest. This is a period of great opportunity and profound vulnerability.
Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan: During the counting of the omer, we wave at God to say both “thank you” and “come here!”
Individual and Communal Responsibility (5767/2007)
“The son of an Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moshe – his mother’s name was Shelomit the daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan – and he was placed in custody, until the decision of YHWH should be made clear to them. And YHWH spoke to Moshe saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 24:11-15)
This disturbing story appears in Parshat Emor following a long list of teachings about holy behavior. What moral lesson does it mean to teach?
Traditional commentators “read between the lines” of the story in several different ways.
According to one interpretation, the story teaches that holiness is a matter of individual responsibility. Shelomit bat Dibri, whose name means “peace that comes through words,” no doubt raised her son using gentle words and holy teachings. When he came of age, however, he chose to use words for harm. Merely inheriting holy teachings does not guarantee that we will use them.
According to another interpretation, the story teaches that holiness is a communal responsibility. A young man from a multicultural family learns that he cannot inherit property according to Israelite law. In anger, he quarrels with an Israelite and kills him, using a secret name of God as a magical weapon. Others overhear, but no one intervenes to make peace or challenge the law. Through the punishment, God requires the entire community to recognize the terrible consequences of their passivity.
May we learn from both of these difficult teachings.