Parashat Emor

Leviticus 21:1–24:23
May 10, 2008 / 5 Iyyar 5768

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi David Ackerman, rabbi, National Outreach, JTS.

At the geographic heart of Parashat Emor lies a seemingly innocuous statement: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions (Leviticus 23:1–2).” There follows a full listing of festivals and sacred days, with a special focus on the roles of priests in the observance of these holy days. Utterly unremarkable until the early Rabbis go to work on this verse and zoom in on the specific order of the words and clauses here. In its original order, Leviticus 23:2 reads: “These fixed times of the Lord, the ones which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions, they are My fixed times.” That sequence propels the Sages of the Mishnah to a startling conclusion: whether the festivals are fixed at their correct times or not, God has no other sacred times. God’s calendar, in other words, depends on a partnership with human beings for its very existence.

At the emotional heart of contemporary Jewish life lies a connection to the State of Israel. This week, the entire Jewish world celebrates the sixtieth anniversary of the modern miracle called Israel. The annual celebration of Israel’s independence, the coupling of Yom Hazikkaron (State of Israel Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzma’ut (State of Israel Independence Day) is the great modern addition to the Jewish calendar. Celebrating Israel each year focuses our attention on the roles of very real and very imperfect human beings in the making of Jewish history and Jewish destiny. Unlike the other sacred occasions on Emor’s list, which describe divine acts and their impact on humanity, Yom Ha’atzma’ut salutes the acts of people and raises the question of the impact of those acts on God.

That may sound like a radical piece of theology, but in fact Jewish thought has long imagined a divine-human partnership in which the actions of either partner have a real impact on the other partner. From the early Rabbis to the Kabbalists to the Hasidim to the Musar Movement, classical Jewish thinkers have always allowed for a human role in bringing about events of cosmic significance. To my mind, and to the minds of many others, the birth of an independent Jewish state in the land of Israel is the central example of this partnership at work in our time. How fortunate we are to live in this extraordinary moment!

While deeply encouraging of the concept that ordinary people can, at key moments, do extraordinary things, our tradition’s theology of divine-human partnership carries significant risks. The efforts of people, however well-intentioned, can certainly distort any reasonable understanding of God’s wishes. Human exuberance can, and too often does, yield results that dramatically dishonor God’s name. We’re all familiar with the litany of examples in which religiously motivated human excess has resulted in sheer horror and self-evident profanation of God’s honor. That’s the dangerous side of Emor’s implied partnership. We the people too often get carried away.

The Torah itself offers a corrective in the form of a well-known verse that immediately precedes the sacred calendar I’ve just described. Leviticus 22:32 reads: “Do not profane My holy name, rather sanctify Me among the people of Israel; I the Lord who make you holy.” The Talmudic tradition emphasized the public nature of this call for holiness, deriving many of the rules regarding minyan from this verse. In the glow of our celebration of Israel’s sixtieth, the Torah’s focus on honoring God’s name through visible, outward, and public behavior takes on a new light. The evolving miracle of modern Israel serves as a most extraordinary arena for the struggle to conquer profanity by honoring God’s name visibly and publicly. In classical Jewish terms, the possibility of hillul hashem  (the profaning of God’s name) is meant to be outdone by acts of kiddush hashem (the sanctification of God’s name).

The State of Israel, for all of its challenges and, yes, missteps and mistakes, scores extremely well on the kiddush hashem scale. Israel’s commitment to democracy and human dignity, scientific and cultural achievements, and determined defense of the Jewish people around the world, all bring honor to our tradition, our people, and God. This week and this Shabbat we celebrate the great Jewish miracle of our time. Perhaps because of this miracle’s strong human component, we celebrate a work in progress, an ongoing effort to sanctify God’s holy name in a deeply unredeemed world. Our task as lovers and supporters of Israel is to stand on guard against the ever-present temptation of hillul hashem, and to keep the focus on Emor’s demand that we as Jews engage endlessly and eternally in actions that bring honor to God’s name. That shared commitment makes this a truly sacred occasion. Hag Sameah to us all!


The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.