Parashat Emor: Proclaim God’s Time or Time is more than a packages of moments; it encodes our history, our identity, our meaning, our purpose

Right at the beginning of the bible comes the need to distinguish time. God divides the phases of creation into days and nights and sets up structures in the universe to define the time that already exists, making the sun, moon and stars. Then God models for us the structure of six days of work followed by a seventh day of rest.

Jewish time is further developed in the rest of the bible. In the book of Exodus in Parashat Bo we find the very first commandment in Torah that is addressed to the entire Jewish people and we find that it is about Time. “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim rishon . . . , “This month shall be to you the first of the months . . . “(Exodus 12:2).

Tradition reads this as an instruction to organise a calendar. And this week, in Parashat Emor, we are given the monthly and daily specifics of what goes on it. Mo-adei Adonai Asher Tikr’u otam . . . , “These are God’s set times which you shall proclaim . . . “(Leviticus 23:2).

Jewish time is the ebb and flow of working week and restful shabbat; it is structured around the major festivals which bound the year – so that until recently most Jews would remember a birthdate or a yahrzeit as being in relation to the nearest festival.

Our calendar is a way of making sure that life is not simply the flow of one homogenous day after another.  It is a way of structuring and therefore being able to use and understand, time.

But it’s not just a matter of giving dates for our holy days in order for us to remember and mark them. Our calendar is more complex and more nuanced than that.

First of all, the days of the year must be indexed to the seasons, otherwise even the tiniest annual discrepancy would, over the decades and centuries, mean that we would be celebrating the Spring festival of Pesach in the winter, and the Autumn festival of Sukkot in the spring. So we have to intervene in how we describe time in order to allow it to work in the right and proper place.

Our sages quickly worked out that neither the solar nor the lunar calendar on their own will solve our problem.  Counting full days does not bring the earth back to precisely the same place in its solar orbit. The solar year – the time it takes the sun to pass from vernal (or spring) equinox to vernal equinox is actually 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds, so there is about a six-hour  or quarter-day margin of error each year. If we did not compensate for this we would create a margin of error of about 24 days after only 100 years.

So in the Gregorian calendar we add a “leap year” with one more day every four years to bring us back to ‘true’.

The lunar calendar, while having the great visual advantage that the eve of the fourteenth day of every lunar month has a full moon (Pesach, Sukkot, Purim, Tu B’Shevat), still brings the difficulty of being one whole lunar month short every two or three years as it is about eleven days shorter than the solar month. We solve this by adding an Adar Sheini, a second month of Adar nine times every seventeen years.

The creation and structuring of time in order to use it is one of the things that makes us human, and how we do it in our particular tradition is one of the things that makes us who we are as Jews. By our working alongside the natural world of day and night, of solar year and lunar cycle and by adding something of our own so as to keep our festivals in their seasons, we are working alongside of God to co-create both our environment and our expression of our history and spirituality. And it is the list of festivals in parashat Emor which gives us the permission and the expectation to do this.  Having been able to create our time and associate our festivals not just with dates, not simply with seasons, but also with a quasi historical meaning, we Jews, so long uprooted from our land and from the agricultural tradition, have learned to build and to buttress our identity and our history through the use of time. Pesach has become the time of redemption from slavery, Shavuot the time of connection with God through Torah, Sukkot gives meaning through our recognition of our mortality and fragility, as well as acknowledging God’s real and practical gifts to us.  Time is more than a series of events of packages of moments; it encodes our history, our identity, our meaning, our purpose.

However secular or distanced from tradition we may be, we still sense the flow of sacred time alongside our awareness of our routine diaries and the calendars of secular events. Spring time still brings thoughts of Pesach, the Autumn heralds the solemn festivals of new year and Yom Kippur. And Jews who rarely feel the need for community or ritual will contact a local community to find out about seder, or a ticket to the high holy days. We still sense the sacredness of time, but how do we express its holiness apart from a tug into community a few times a year? The psalms tell us the messianic age could arrive tomorrow, if only we would listen. Today’s sidra is called “Emor” – the imperative to speak. Yet if we focus only on speaking we would quickly dislocate ourselves in our dialogue, for just as time is lunar AND solar, so is communication about speaking AND listening.  What we listen to, what we hear bible telling us again and again, is the requirement to be holy because God is holy. And how do we do that? Clearly in part it is a focus on what we do, how we act in the world, but Emor tells us also that becoming holy has something to do with how we ‘make time’ for the important things in life, with we use our time on this earth.

Rabbi Jon Adland (US Reform Rabbi) put it like this: “Time is all we’ve got in our lives, and how we use this precious inheritance will determine the mark we leave on this world. Holy days and holidays are not only about acknowledging God, but also about affirming community and remembering that which came before. The rest of time, the majority of moments outside of the holy days, are left for us to structure. In many ways, every day that isn’t a Jewish holiday is chol hamo-eid, an “intermediate day” in a year-long calendar. Just because a day is not a holy day on the calendar doesn’t mean it can’t be made holy through our actions.”

So we need to be asking ourselves each day: “What should we be doing to sanctify our time?”  “In what way should we be speaking out? In what way should we be listening?”

Our religious practise has moved on since the days that we brought offerings to God at set times to the Temple. Now we have to ask how we use our time in a way that honours God and our tradition. Be it fighting for social justice or bringing compassion to individuals in distress; be it offering gifts of food or money or opportunity to those in need or our living with low impact on the environment; be it political activism or small acts of kindness – there are a myriad ways we can use our time in this world. The important thing is that we use our time well, and create holiness in our world.

 

Sermon 2018

Tetzaveh: the flames that ascend on their own

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

For those of us who enjoy parsing bible, this very first verse of the sidra gives us a rich seam of learning. God is instructing Moses on what will happen inside the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle used for worship in the wilderness years. The sidra gives us elaborately detailed instructions for the clothing of the priests, and about the ceremony of ordination in which they will be dedicated to the service of God. The purpose of the clothes and the rituals are made clear – it is to make the priests holy.

The holiness of biblical times was not the abstract quality we think of it today, it was for them an important state of being for those who were to approach God. Holiness could be acquired through ritual and clothing, washing and the abstention from some actions, people and places. Holiness was a quality which was necessary for those who wished to serve God in the rituals of worship, as it would somehow protect them from what was understood to be a potentially dangerous and certainly unknowable presence of God.

So we have verse after verse of what they wore and when and how they wore it, what they washed and what they daubed in blood; what they ate and when and in what condition, what they slaughtered and what they sprinkled, what they burned and what they waved.

Reading it one can easily fall into a modern-minded trap of wondering how on earth they could believe that this ritual of sacrifice and incense brought people closer to God – but I think the clue is in the very first line I quoted – this is not for God, it was never for God, this is for the people.

אַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר:  לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִיד

And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring to you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually. (Ex 27:20)

Rabbinic commentators noticed two surprising words in this verse.

The first being that the oil that is being brought to light the lamps in the Mishkan – and to symbolise the eternal relationship between God and people – is brought not for (or to) God but Alecha – for you. The midrash is clear (Lev Rabbah 31:8) when it tells us that God already has the sun as a servant, there is already fire in the world so God does not need the light that we have burning in the Mishkan. God does not need it, we do. Bringing the olive oil into the Mishkan is an action only for our benefit; it is a way to come closer to God, a way to create relationship with the Eternal. The Midrash tells us that God gives us the mitzvot as a way to let us have as many opportunities as possible to come closer to relationship with God, even in the smallest and insignificant actions of our lives – such as providing olive oil for a lamp.

There is a second curiosity in this verse. The verb used to describe kindling the light is not the normal one for lighting a flame – lehadlik – but instead the bible talks of le’ha’alot Ner Tamid – to cause to ascend a light continually.

In the Talmud are two ideas about this verb and what we can learn from it. Rabbi Samuel bar Isaac in the Jerusalem Talmud (Sukkah 29b) deduced that the unusual word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, literally “to cause to ascend,” meant that the wick had to allow the flame to ascend by itself. And thus the Rabbis concluded that no material other than flax — as in the fine linen of the High Priest’s clothing — would allow the flame to ascend by itself. Similarly, in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 21a) Rami bar Hama deduced from the use of word לְהַעֲלֹת, le’ha’alot, that the flame had to ascend by itself, and not through other means (such as adjustment by the priests).

Taking these comments and in particular the idea that the flame should ascend on its own, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the famous nineteenth century founder of the school of “Torah im Derech Eretz” orthodoxy which negotiates the  relationship between traditionally observant Judaism and the modern world, wrote that “the description of the act of kindling a lamp by the term ‘ascending’ is peculiar to the service of the lamp in the sanctuary. It alludes to the action of the priest in applying the flame to the wick which is ready to be kindled until the flame ascends of its own”. The task of the teacher of Judaism is to make themselves superfluous to their pupils. It is not their function to keep the people – the ones who receive instruction from the teacher – continually dependent on them”

The statement is a beautiful distillation of what Jewish education – formal and informal – should be aiming for. That we want our children (and of course our adults) to be themselves ‘flames which ascend on their own’. The goal of Jewish community is that individually and collectively we gain the knowledge and the confidence and the inspiration to live active and thoughtful Jewish lives, that each of us is able to stand up and be a light in the world, living with Jewish values and ethics, striking out for righteousness.

There is an idiom in the English language – to pass the torch – and this is, to some extent what all of us in the Jewish world hope to be doing within our communities. However this sidra reminds us that we are not passing the torch on in order to relinquish our responsibilities, but rather that we nurture the flame of learning and identity of the next generation with our own learning and experience.

The image of Aaron each and every day nurturing a flame in order to have it stand upright and unaided, giving light through the darkness is an image that appeals to me and speaks to me of how we have kept our traditions and our teachings alive through the generations.

candles