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Parashat Emor 5778 — 05/05/2018

Parashat Emor 5778 — 05/05/2018

Rabbi Sacks has a particularly beautiful exposition on Parashat Emor which you can access here.

Happy Cinco de Mayo!

Vayikra 21:1-24:23
Parashat Emor contains the description of the Festivals – the three “Pilgrimage Festival”: Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, plus Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur.

Abarbanel asks some interesting questions about the two holidays and their relationship to one another.
• Why is the first of Tishri the day of judgment for the world? Aren’t we judged every day?
• If Rosh haShanah is a day of judgment for all peoples, why is Yom Kippur, the day of repentance and atonement, only designated for the Jewish people?
• Although repentance is necessary and accepted all year, why are the 10 Days of Repentance especially important?
• What is the significance the “3 books” (the book of the completely righteous, the book of the completely wicked, and the book of those who are neither of the above) that Gd opens on Rosh haShanah?

To answer these questions, I’d first like to consider the concept of “repentance.” As we have discussed in the past, the Hebrew word for repentance is t’shuvah and comes from the root shuv, which means “to return.” The root is also close phonetically to the roots meaning “to cease” (as in Shabbat) and “to sit” (as in a Yeshiva, where people sit and learn Torah). Ordinarily we think of “returning” as returning to Gd, making Gd’s Will primary over our own, turning away from the material pleasures of the world to the spiritual, etc. All this is a very valid interpretation.

I would like to supplement that interpretation by using the other roots to get another take on t’shuvah. Consider our minds. They are always active, always seeking greater happiness. But contained within the ability to be active is the ability to be less active, and eventually, to be completely silent. We experience that when we are well rested (e.g. when we get up in the morning after a good night’s sleep) our thoughts are quieter, more settled. The more settled state of mental activity is more charming to the mind, and, by extrapolation, when the mind is completely silent, devoid of thoughts, this is the state that is most charming to the mind, because it is the most expansive. Thus, left to its own devices, the mind will naturally go towards this most settled state of awareness.  With repeated experience of this settled state, the mind and the physiology get trained to maintain this state alongside all activity. We act from a state of settled awareness, as if anchored in the depths of the ocean, insulated from the buffeting of the waves on the surface of the ocean.

This is another level of t’shuvah. It is a return to our own innermost nature, unadulterated by our thoughts, our desires, our pride, our ego, our agendas. It is also t’shuvah in the sense of being a cessation of the activity of the mind, and in the sense of our sitting simply within ourselves, fulfilled. I would suggest that this t’shuvah is actually the prerequisite for the “bigger” t’shuvah of returning to Gd.

When we think of “doing t’shuvah,” we generally think about following Gd’s commandments more closely, giving our lives a more spiritual direction. We also know how long such resolutions last. The reason we find t’shuvah so difficult is that our senses are constantly pulling our minds in the outward direction, towards activity. That is what our bodies are built to do, so it is quite a natural phenomenon. But, as we have seen, the mind is always seeking greater happiness, and the finite, bounded values of the objects of the senses can never satisfy the mind. As soon as we get one thing, we almost immediately want something else, something new. Thus we are led on a constant wild-goose chase, and one that has no prize at the end that might leave us fulfilled. In such a state, what significance does “returning to Gd” have? We are returning the same outward-directed, sense-driven, unfulfilled self to Gd, which has been running away from Him all along!

On the other hand, when we are inner-directed and fulfilled, when we recognize our Self as unbounded and full, then we have an “unblemished offering” to give to Gd. This is truly offering our soul to Gd in purity.

There are many factors that affect our actions. Our place in the physical world is one of them – life is different when one lives in the mountains, as it is when one lives on a plain, and the weather dictates what kind of agriculture is profitable and what isn’t. The minerals in the ground can color our cultural choices. And there are cycles to life as well – daily, monthly, yearly cycles that are very obvious, and longer-term cycles that may not be so obvious. What this means is that certain places and certain times are more supportive of some activities, and other places or other times are more supportive of different activities.  Furthermore, the people who live in a particular place become adapted, at least culturally, to these influences.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Jewish people, these adaptations remain in the culture, and perhaps even in the DNA, even if living in the ancestral homeland is no longer possible for some time.

Apparently, the fall season, during the first part of the lunar cycle, is most supportive of the process of t’shuvah. I can only speculate why that might be. Perhaps since it is at the end of the agricultural season it is a natural time to cease our activity and turn away from the material world that had so absorbed our energy and attention. Certainly there are deeper reasons that most of us cannot fathom. That is why we have our traditions to tell us when and where and how to live our lives in accord with the laws of nature that are specific to us as a people, as well, of course, of those that are universal to all people and all times. But the basis of our tradition, and all traditions, is settling down and realizing the unboundedness that is at the basis of every individual. This is a t’shuvah that we can, and should, do every day, wherever we are.