Parshah Summary – P’shat (literal level)
The parshah opens with special laws for the kohanim (priests) and sacrificial offerings, including laws about ritual impurity, marriage, and the animals that may be offered. Included are the laws that a newborn calf, lamb or kid must be left with its mother for seven days before being eligible for an offering, and that one may not slaughter an animal and its offspring on the same day. The second part of Emor lists the festivals: the weekly Shabbat; the bringing of the Passover offering on the 14th of Nissan; the seven-day Passover festival beginning on 15 Nissan; the bringing of the Omer offering from the first barley harvest on the second day of Passover, and the 49-day “Counting of the Omer,” culminating in the festival of Shavuot on the fiftieth day; a “remembrance of shofar blowing” on the 1st of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah); a solemn fast day on the 10th of Tishrei (Yom Kippur); the festival of Sukkot, beginning on the 15th of Tishrei, which involves the practices of dwelling in huts for seven days and the ritual of waving the “Four Species”; and finally the holiday of the eighth day of Sukkot, called Shmini Atzeret. The parshah then discusses the lighting of the menorah and the lekhem hapanim (the “showbread”), which is placed on a special table each week. Emor concludes with the penalties for murder and for injuring one’s fellow or destroying their property.
Torah of Awakening
דַּבֵּ֨ר אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֜ן וְאֶל־בָּנָ֗יו וְיִנָּֽזְרוּ֙ מִקָּדְשֵׁ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְלֹ֥א יְחַלְּל֖וּ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֑י אֲשֶׁ֨ר הֵ֧ם מַקְדִּשִׁ֛ים לִ֖י אֲנִ֥י יי
Tell Aaron and his sons that they should withdraw from the sacred offerings of the Children of Israel – that which they sanctify to Me – so as not to desecrate My Holy Name – I am Hashem.
- Vayikra (Leviticus) 22:2; Parshat Emor
Once, when the Baal Shem Tov was about to enter the synagogue, he stopped at the threshold. Those behind him waited patiently, but after some time passed, one of them politely asked him if he was going to go in. “I can’t go in,” replied the Baal Shem, “there is no room for me – the entire space is crowded with teachings and prayers. How can anyone enter when there is no space?” They looked at him dumbfounded. Then he explained: “When prayers and teachings don’t come from the heart, but are merely repeated mechanically, they don’t rise to heaven, but rather they fill up the room from floor to ceiling. That is why there is no room for me to enter!”
Anyone who takes care of a pool knows that you have to regularly put more water into it, because the water evaporates over time, especially when it’s hot. That is what happens to awareness as well, especially when we “heat up” with reactive emotion. But even without reactivity, consciousness tends to “sink down” unless we are deliberate in “refilling our pool,” so to speak. That is the whole point of prayer and meditation – to “fill up” with consciousness, so that we can live from the fullness of our inner depths. But sometimes, formal practice is not enough, because if our consciousness has sunk to a low enough level, our practice will be from that low level, and then we will only be mechanically going through the motions. In those cases, we have to somehow wake ourselves up first to even begin.
וְיִנָּֽזְרוּ מִקָּדְשֵׁ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל – they should withdraw from the sacred offerings of the Children of Israel… The word for “withdraw” – וְיִנָּֽזְרוּ vayinazru – comes from a root which means to “abstain” or “renounce” on one hand, but also to “sanctify” or “consecrate,” on the other. (An example of this is the Nazir who both renounces wine and also becomes consecrated to the Divine.) The traditional understanding of this verse is that it speaks of priests who have become ritually impure – tamei – and so must excuse themselves from dealing with the offerings that people bring, until they become pure – tahor – again.
וְלֹ֥א יְחַלְּל֖וּ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֑י – and not desecrate My Holy Name… The word for “desecrate” – יְחַלְּלוּ y’khal’lu – comes from the root which means “to empty.” The “Holy Name” is the Tetragrammaton – the four-letter name which the kabbalists associate with the human body, based on the notion that we are בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹהִים b’tzelem Elohim – the “image of the Divine.” Thus, to “desecrate the Holy Name” means to “empty” our Presence from our own bodies, and become disconnected from our own inner depths that are available to us through body-Presence…
When that happens, when we sink to such a low level of awareness, disconnected from our bodies and the present moment, holy prayers and Divine Names become temporarily useless; the “Name” becomes “empty,” and formal prayer and meditation are not enough to pull ourselves up. There is a remedy discussed in the rabbinic wisdom text Pirkei Avot:
רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן אוֹמֵר, הֱוֵי זָהִיר בִּקְרִיאַת שְׁמַע וּבַתְּפִלָּה. וּכְשֶׁאַתָּה מִתְפַּלֵּל, אַל תַּעַשׂ תְּפִלָּתְךָ קֶבַע, אֶלָּא רַחֲמִים וְתַחֲנוּנִים לִפְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם
Rabbi Shimon said, “Be meticulous in the chanting of the Sh’ma and in prayer. And when you pray, don’t make your prayer rigid and fixed; rather, compassion and supplication before The Place…” - Pirkei Avot 2:13
On one hand, Rabbi Shimon acknowledges the importance of having a regular, formal practice: Be meticulous in the chanting of the Sh’ma and in prayer. On the other hand, if all you have is a formal practice, that won’t work: Don’t make your prayer rigid and fixed; rather, compassion and supplication before The Place. In other words, when we have sunk to a low level of consciousness, we may not be able to elevate ourselves with formal practice alone; we need humility. We need to acknowledge how low we’ve sunk: “Oh Ribono Shel Olam, help me out of this low place!” That’s the compassion and supplication before The Place.
It is interesting that the Divine is here called הַמָּקוֹם HaMakom – The Place, hinting that the point is not theology, the point is the sacred quality of space itself, and how we affect those with whom we share space. The point is not what you believe about God, it is about keeping your inner space Godly; it’s about openness and humility. You are the “priest” of your own inner space. Sometimes your space becomes contaminated, so then it is time to become vulnerable and call out from the heart with humility. The person who opens to that humility and vulnerability truly “serves God,” even if they say they are an atheist.
On the other hand, the person who complains about what happens, who harbors grudges and anger, who judges others while refusing to take responsibility for their own inner space – that person is the true atheist, even if they profess to “believe.” Beliefs about “God” are not the same as actual God.
People have believed in various gods for a long time; we seem to have an innate capacity for bowing to something greater than ourselves. Much, if not all extraordinary human achievements and as well as horrific crimes come from that capacity, whether it’s bowing to the God of the Bible or the cause of science; whether it’s Democracy or Facism. Bowing to something greater is empowering, but it’s not necessarily good. That’s the essence of the Jewish prohibition against idolatry – don’t bow to some parasitic ideology, something that is not good. Rather, the inner message of Judaism is:
יי הוּא הָאֱלֺהִים Hashem Hu HaElohim!
Meaning: Existence, Being, Reality, That is the true Divinity. In other words, take your innate devotionality and aim it at Reality Itself. Reality always Is what it Is, it always Will Be what it Will Be, gifting us with the power to bring forth what Could Be…
אֶֽהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶֽהְיֶה Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh
“I Will Be That Which I Will Be”
Let us bow to That – let us not resist what is, but rather let us find the peace within our own being that comes from openness and acceptance – that is the Path of Hod, of Humility and Gratitude. And from that Place of openness, let us rise up – let us envision a better reality and offer our actions toward that goal with intention and consistency – that is the Path of Netzakh, of commitment and action…
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