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The Parsha in a Nutshell
This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks, available to read in full via the left sidebar (or below, if you are viewing this on your phone)
Emor contains a chapter dedicated to the chaggim of the Jewish calendar. It is distinctive from the other accounts of the festivals in the Torah. Unlike the Shemot and Devarim passages, this chapter includes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Shabbat in the list of the festivals. Strangely, the Torah here seems to be calling Shabbat both a moed, an appointed time, and a mikra kodesh, a sacred assembly, which it does nowhere else.
The list of the chaggim in Vayikra emphasises not the social dimension we find in Devarim, or the sacrificial dimension we find in Bamidbar, but rather the spiritual dimension of encounter, closeness, the meeting of the human and the Divine. This explains why we find in this chapter, more than in any other, two key words. One is moed, the other is mikra kodesh, and both are deeper than they seem.
The word moed does not just mean “appointed time.” We find the same word in the phrase Ohel Moed meaning “Tent of Meeting.” If the Ohel Moed was the place where God met the people, then the mo’adim in our chapter are the times when God meets His people. This idea is given beautiful expression in the last line of the mystical song we sing on Shabbat, Yedid Nefesh, “Hurry, beloved, for the appointed time [moed] has come.” Moed here means a tryst – an appointment made between lovers to meet at a certain time and place.
As for the phrase mikra kodesh, it comes from the same root as the word that gives the entire book its name: vayikra, meaning “to be summoned in love.” A mikra kodesh is not just a holy day. It is a meeting to which we have been called in affection by One who holds us close.
Much of the book of Vayikra is about the holiness of place, the Mishkan. Some of it is about the holiness of people, the Kohanim, the Priests, and Israel as a whole, as “a kingdom of priests.” In our parsha, in vayikra chapter 23, the Torah turns to the holiness of time and the times of holiness.
We are spiritual beings, but we are also physical beings. We cannot be spiritual, close to God, all the time. That is why there is secular time as well as holy time. But one day in seven, we stop working and enter the presence of the God of creation. On certain days of the year, the festivals, we celebrate the God of history. The holiness of Shabbat is determined by God alone because He alone created the universe. The holiness of the festivals is partially determined by us (i.e., by the fixing of the calendar), because history is a partnership between us and God. But in two respects they are the same. They are both times of meeting (moed), and they are both times when we feel ourselves called, summoned, invited as God’s guests (mikra kodesh).
We can’t always be spiritual. God has given us a material world with which to engage. But on the seventh day of the week, (and originally seven days in the year), God gives us dedicated time in which we feel the closeness of the Shechinah and are bathed in the radiance of God’s love.
- Why do we need to have specific times when we will be in the presence of God?
- Why can we not be spiritual always, in the presence of God always?
- How do the chaggim, and Shabbat, help us to be close to God?
by Rabbi Dr. Seth Grauer
Almost 13 years ago, I was privileged to share the stage with Rabbi Sacks at the Yeshivat Har Etzion (Gush) annual dinner. I asked Gush for one favor. To arrange for me to spend an hour alone with the Rabbi I admired and respected so much. They granted my wish and told me to meet Rabbi Sacks at Princeton University, before a lecture he was about to give. I remember driving down there, nervously rehearsing and memorizing all my questions. The hour flew by far too quickly and I realized I should have asked for two.
During that meeting, I asked Rabbi Sacks the following question:
“What should our priorities be for tzedakah and for communal volunteer work?”
Without hesitation, he replied, “Jewish Education!”
“For both?” I asked.
He told me he thought we need to do everything possible to get as many children into formal Jewish day schools and that working in Jewish education, especially as a teacher and a Rabbi, was the best and most important job I could do!
He then gave me his personal contact information and told me I could feel comfortable reaching out. I gratefully and regularly did so over the next decade. He devoted as much time to me as I requested always eager to discuss Jewish education, the rabbinate, and any other questions I had. We all know how incredibly busy Rabbi Sacks was despite his standing and crazy schedule, he always made time for me and countless others.
Rabbi Sacks always devoted as much time to me as I needed. He was always eager to discuss Jewish education, the rabbinate, and any other questions I had, and I will be eternally grateful.
The new series of Covenant & Conversation: Family Editions features one new voice each week. We hope that this will further illuminate the ideas of Rabbi Sacks and encourage others to continue these conversations with the next generation, as we share the stories and ideas of Rabbi Sacks scholars.
Rabbi Dr. Seth Grauer is Rosh Yeshiva and Head of School of the Bnei Akiva Schools of Toronto. He is also a Sacks Scholar.
A Closer Look
Rabbi Seth Grauer now reflects on some of the deeper ideas of Rabbi Sacks’ teachings.
What is your favourite quote from Rabbi Sacks’ essay this week, and why?
“We are spiritual beings but we are also physical beings. We cannot be spiritual, close to God, all the time. That is why there is a secular time as well as a holy time. But one day in seven, we stop working and enter the presence of the God of creation.”
This is very comforting in our lifelong drive to develop a close connection with God. Connecting spiritually with Him all day and every day is impossible, but recognizing that there are special days and specific times in which our focus and attention should be heightened makes this goal more attainable.
Which of these ideas is the most important message for the next generation?
The recognition that we are both spiritual and physical beings. It is so incredibly essential that we appreciate that there is far more to life than just its physical and material aspects, yet we must realise that “we cannot be spiritual, close to God, all the time.” Of course we know that the ideal would be to connect our physical beings and physical world to our spiritual selves such that we look for a higher purpose in everything we do, but in the absence of that, from a mental health and self-concept perspective it is important to recognise that it is indeed normal to be simply unable to connect spiritually to God all day every day.
How could we put Rabbi Sacks’ message about Shabbat into real-life practice?
If each of us took the time to contemplate our lives on Shabbat – to really think about what we have, what we are and who we want to be – it would have an immediate impact on our week. By using Shabbat properly, we can add meaning and power to both our physical and spiritual lives.
Adam HaRishon observed the first ever Shabbat moments after his creation. Rather than being exhausted or tired, he was likely excited for the week ahead.
A lesson for us all. Shabbat is a day set aside for the purpose of connecting to God. By being close to Him on Shabbat, we will be more likely to be closer to Him more of the time.
Question: Mr Cohen is praying with a minyan in a shul in Israel. He is not behind on his davening, and his level of Torah study has equal status with all the other men present. His father is a kohen, and his grandfather before him, so Mr Cohen is halachically a kohen too. Yet when it is time to call up the first person to the Torah for an aliya, a yisrael is called up instead of Mr Cohen. Can you explain why?
This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1500 Torah riddles, available worldwide on Amazon. For the answer, please head to the Education Companion section (directly below, in grey).
Torah Trivia: this week’s answer
The reason is “darkei shalom”. Mr Cohen is not the only kohen at shul that day. In fact, he is praying with a minyan full of kohanim, and only one yisrael. The yisrael is therefore called up first, so that no one kohen will be made to feel superior or inferior to his fellow kohanim (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 135:12).
Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.
With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.
“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks