Torah reading: Emor
SACRIFICES & PRAYERS
The sidra deals with the priesthood.
The major task of the kohanim was to conduct the animal sacrifices in the Temple.
Now that there is no Temple the sacrifices are replaced by prayers.
A simple substitution, but a difficult idea. What do sacrifices and prayers have in common that one can replace the other?
Let’s look at both sides of the equation.
If we say that the central element in a sacrifice is that we give something to God, what are we giving Him when we utter prayers?
The answer: we are giving Him our status and sovereignty. We are saying, “Just as our ancestors gave you the sacrifice of something that was valuable to them, so we are giving You acknowledgement that You are the One who rules, and we are climbing down from our self-important Tower of Babel to acknowledge ‘ki hamalchut shel’cha hi’, that kingship over Creation is in Your hands and not in ours”.
On the other hand, if we say that the central element in a prayer is communication with God, how did our ancestors communicate with Him in the Temple sacrifices?
By deeds, speaking to Him through what they did, not just what they said.
In the Temple their deeds were worship and sacrifice; in the wider world their deeds were ethics and attitudes.
HOLY DAYS & HOLY WAYS
A large part of the Torah reading this week is concerned with the holiness pattern of the Jewish calendar, the series of festivals through which we re-experience the lives of our ancestors and celebrate the gifts and guidance of God.
The Vilna Ga’on used to say that the command, “Six days shall work be done” refers to the six major holy days of the Jewish year, Pesach, Shavu’ot, Sukkot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur and Shabbat.
Of course in one sense the connection with work is that it is not done, strictly so on Shabbat and almost as strictly on the festivals. But if the Ga’on speaks of work being done, he must have something else in mind, presumably the work of making each occasion special and memorable.
In a physical sense the work required to mark each day is done beforehand, but in an emotional, spiritual and cultural sense we have to invest the day with happiness and joy, with intellectual as well as spiritual content, with songs, psalms and prayers, with conversation with others about the theme of the day and with thanks to God for His gifts and greatness.
EVEN IN PRIVATE
The concepts of “Chillul HaShem”, profaning God’s Name, and its opposite, “Kiddush HaShem”, are part of this sidra (Lev. 22:32).
If we sanctify God’s Name in public, that is somehow easier than doing it in private. When people are watching we tend to be careful about our conduct.
Yet Pir’kei Avot warns us to be scrupulous about it in private too: “Whoever profanes the Name of Heaven in private will suffer for it in public, even if it is done unintentionally” (Avot 4:5).
What we do in private is often rather relaxed. “No-one is watching,” we say, “so I can let myself do what I would avoid in public”.
The truth is that there is always Someone watching — the Almighty.
But apart from this, abandoning one’s standards in secret is a form of self-deception.
The issue is not merely whether anyone else is watching but whether I really believe in my moral standards. If I do, they apply even when it seems that no-one else is around.