A. Let’s focus first on the title of the portion - emor - to speak. What meaning do you take from the words here - to speak to the priests?
(This is not to command, to instruct, to call, but rather to speak. Doesn’t this convey the idea of sharing, teaching, and learning, and understanding? Further, we know that speaking can be for good or ill. This is speaking for the good. Another view: it suggests that there be a direct communication to the priests with a specific message. So, the idea might be to be sure to be clear in the communication and effective in it with respect to that direct message.)
I. Read 21:1-4
Let’s stick with the theme of speaking. I want to show you a way that the rabbis use the actual words to draw out meaning that would not be clear but for the precise language itself. I’d like to do this more often, but usually we’re more rushed than we are today. So, let’s read the first verse again. Do you note something unusual?
(There are two verbs for speak - one, speak and the other, say. Does your Bible have both. Traditional readings would say there’s no excess use of words, so why the two verbs?
One nice drash is that Moses speaks to the priests and then separately “says” something to the children of Aaron. So, this turns into a lesson that there is a separate exercise beyond bringing the message to the priests, indeed to pay special attention to educating the children, in the ways of holiness, even ahead of their time to follow duty. Lots of possibilities for interpretation, but that’s pretty nice.
B. Now, why would there be these rules of distinction and separation for the priests? Do they have any meaning for us?
(Our clerics in our own time move regularly from death to life. Should there be a separation, at least perhaps for some, or to a greater degree? The text seems to find a reason for it, for some. Perhaps some should pastor to those dying and the grieving, and some should be free of that (except for nearest of kin), and wholly devoted to the living spirit. One other thing to remember: there is, as here, a distinction made due to the death cults that characterized the obsession of priests of other cultures, other nations, specifically the Canaanites and the Egyptians. Theirs was a fascination with death. Thoughts?
Does this teach us anything about separation in our own lives, not that we wouldn’t be near death, but as we discussed in the past, as to separation as to dramas, and in time?
II. Read 7-9.
A. Why would there be rules that limit marriage choices for the priests? How do you read this? Does it make sense? In what ways?
(Purity is important. So is reputation. But, maybe more, the integrity over time in one’s spouse might create a solid and predictable foundation in the family upon which the priest can serve God and perform sacred duty, with as little risk of distraction or disruption as possible.
There seems to be in all of this a concern about attachments to other forces than those that must occupy priests (and us) as fully as possible: death, the pagan, dysfunction or unfaithfulness in the family. The devotion to serving, modeling, facilitating encounter with the divine, furthering healing, and so forth should be as pure and whole as possible.)
B. Look in 7 and 8. Count how many times you see variations of the Hebrew word for kadosh, holy? I needn’t ask what this means. It’s as if living in the way of holiness, in our lives, as we have come to understand that, especially last week, is what the life of the priest is to be about, and should be fully about. And, though we, each of us, may not be not quite fully priests and can’t be, we do recall, don’t we, our ultimate mission, to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. And, thus, this discipline may also be instructive to us. Do you agree? How might these ideas matter to us?
III. Read 22:17-22.
Why is there a prohibition against defects in the offerings?
(It shows a defect in that part of ourselves that seeks to come close to God with the offering. If this were otherwise, it would be as if it’s ok to bring something less than the best. That would be disrespectful of God and show a deficiency in our commitment to God.
Since we no longer bring grains and animals, how might this apply to us today?
Without the constraint, we would devote time when we’re distracted. We would offer up confused or careless devotion in worship. Our prayer would be half-hearted or done more by rote. We would give resources that are perhaps a bit tainted, or less than what would be appropriate. We would fail fully to leave our other attachments at the door when we approach the Divine.)
IV. Read 23:1-2.
We’ve spent some time in Exodus talking about the festivals and holidays. They appear here again, and indeed again in Deuteronomy. Here it is mostly to see the role of the priests in the celebration in sacred space. But we also get to reflect as well on the importance of sacred time in the midst of our discussion of sacred space. Be thinking about the idea and meaning of sacred time as we read through these passages and take a selective look at a few of them.
V. Read 23:4-6.
This first festival mentioned here after shabbat is, as you know, Passover. It looks more like a harvest festival, not the holiday celebrating redemption that we studied in Exodus. We do see key words that bring back a memory of what we studied before. But what do you make of the description of Passover that we read here?
(It is both! It was a time in the season that was set apart, and then was engrafted with meaning around redemption and made especially sacred. We’ve discussed at length its history, purpose, and meaning as an ongoing festival, both seasonal and sacred, to be experienced.)
But note that it takes place in the first month of the year. We’ll see in a moment that Rosh Hashanah (23:23-25) is also a major holiday, and it’s supposed to be, though it comes at the start of the seventh month, the head of the year.
There’s a new year, too, for trees, which is used for certain tithing purposes. And there’s a fourth new year for cattle, again relating to the tithing of cattle.
Here’s my question: put aside the trees and the cattle, why would we have a new year in the month of passover and one at Rosh Hashanah? Is this nutty? Is it due to agricultural reasons? Or do see another explanation for two or more new years?
(I think having a day for redemption and a separate day commemorating creation makes some sense. Having a day for the separate fall and spring seasons also seems right in some way.)
VI. Read 15-21.
This describes the time between Passover and the next festival, which commemorates the summer grains, wheat, and is an occasion to be celebrated. And it gives me an opportunity to show you some features and different aspects of sacred time.
It looks in the text like we’re considering purely agricultural festivals, perhaps when we express gratitude for the fruits or grains of the season - barley in the spring, and wheat at the beginning of summerBut what is made of these festivals? We put sacred and spiritual meaning and purpose on top of the ancient earth-bound celebration. These fifty days are seen as symbolic of the time between redemption and revelation, the journey from Egypt to Sinai, from Passover to Shavuot, or Pentecost. As we have studied, the purpose of the redemption is specifically to be God’s people in covenant, and to receive and follow God’s revelation.
This “counting off seven weeks” between redemption and revelation has turned into the practice of counting of the days in between, the counting of the omer. Recall when we last encountered this word, this measure, the omer? Each person was entitled to an omer of manna in the wilderness. We’re no longer entitled to the manna, but we can, after the redemption through matzo, dedicate in freedom an omer of barley, and count the days afterwards, until the season, in journey, in gratitude, of the blessing of wheat. Yet, far beyond the grains, we celebrate God’s saving hand and revelation to us of God’s word and way. It is for all these blessings and our blessing to be in covenant with God that we use these 50 days “between Egypt and Sinai” to meditate and reflect upon as we ready ourselves for Sinai.
Right now, today, we are actually in this period of counting. Tonight we count xxx. And I want to show you one of the nicest ways we commemorate this counting. Take a look at the handout. This reflects a service that the Chabad organization performs by sending a daily spiritual reflection for each day during this period. This is based on certain ideas within the mystical tradition and focuses on the basic attributes of loving kindness, justice and discipline, harmony and compassion, endurance, humility, bonding, and leadership. Take a look, if you like. I’ve found these daily exercises to be a wonderful, meaningful way to count each day, to spend the seven weeks called for in the Bible verses we just read.
VII. We won’t spend time on this festival period between Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. There are so many ideas beyond those we’ve discussed or have time today to discuss. I have thoughts about a resemblance to a symphonic structure. Ah, for another day!
After a discussion of Yom Kippur and during a discussion of the lovely holiday of Sukkot, we come to verses 23:37-38. Let’s read them.
We’ve spent a good bit of time in recent weeks talking about the nature and importance of sacred space. Today we’ve focused on sacred time. So, after reading and studying about sacred time today and after previous study and experience, what do you make of it? Why do we find sacred time emphasized in God’s word?
(It commemorates significant events in our experience and major moments with God, and God’s gifts and blessings to us. It teaches us of our covenant with God and the holiness God expects of us. It teaches us. It brings us together in offerings that bring us near God in the festival experience. It encourages and beseeches us to make more and more of our time holy and helps us bring holiness to more time, just as sacred space encourages and helps us make more space holy.
Wouldn’t that be what our God who asks us to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation do for us? Give us sacred time and sacred space and ask us to occupy both and fill both as instructed, both to teach and guide us to be the people the Divine expects and hopes us to be?)
VIII. Let’s return to 23:22. Why is this verse fitted in the midst of directions on the festivals?
(So that we never forget that holiness has at its core how we live with, and love, others, especially those in need.)