Parashat Emor 5781


28 April 2021 – 16 Iyyar 5781

Rabbi Lea Mühlstein

 
Finding God

The prophet Micah famously asked (Micah 6:7): What does the Eternal One require of you? Judging by this week’s portion Emor the answer appears to be animal sacrifices. Well, that’s not exactly what a Liberal Jew would routinely turn to…

But let us focus on one short verse in our portion, which reads (Leviticus 22:32): “You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people—I Adonai who sanctify you.”

The text says v’nikdashti, “and I will be made holy” amidst the Children of Israel. Or, in other words, “You will make Me holy just as I, Adonai, have made you holy.”

We find a rather intriguing interpretation of this portrayal of the relationship between God and the Jewish people in P’sikta D’Rav Kahana, one of the oldest collections of midrash and commentaries on the Torah. The P’sikta teaches:

“You are My witnesses, says the Lord . . . that I am the One; before Me there was no God formed, neither shall there be any after Me” (Isaiah 43:10). Thus said Shimon bar Yohai: “If you are my witnesses then I am the One, the first One, neither shall there be any after Me. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God.” (P’sikta D’Rav Kahana, 12)

The American Reform Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport observes: “in the context of the Torah, our lives, our very existence as a people, are dependent on the actions of God. And here for this one shining moment, the Torah teaches us that God’s Holiness, God’s Presence in the world, is dependent upon us.”

So, what does that mean for us as Liberal Jews? How can we stand as witnesses that the Holy One is the One? One answer is through prayer. Rather than simply being a replacement of the animal sacrifices that we once offered in ancient times, prayer expresses our aspirations to make God holy.

In her reflection on the power of prayer, Ruth F. Brin writes, as quoted in Mishkan T’filah, the American Reform prayer book:

I can begin with a prayer of gratitude
for all that is holy in my life.
God needs no words, no English or Hebrew,
no semantics and no services.
But I need them.

Through prayer, I can sense my inner strength
my inner purpose,
my inner joy, my capacity to love.
As I reach upward in prayer,
I sense these qualities in my Creator.

To love God is to love each other,
to work to make our lives better.
To love God is to love the world God created
and to work to perfect it.
To love God is to love dreams of peace and joy
that illumine all of us,
and to bring that vision to life.

What Brin highlights for us is the mutual relationship between bearing witness to God’s holiness and likewise being called to account for our actions in our lives. In essence, what the P’sikta is asking is what’s the point of a holy God, if we don’t mirror that holiness in our daily lives. Judaism has never been a religion just for the sake of heaven. If our prayers do not inspire us to speak up about the things that truly matter in society, what’s the point of praying at all?

Over the past two weeks, Rabbi Aaron and I have started the difficult conversation at The Ark Synagogue about how we can do our part to challenge endemic violence against women and LGBT+ individuals.1 And we have started exploring what it might look like to hold our textual tradition to account for normalising misogyny, homo- and transphobia and toxic masculinity. I truly could not think of a more powerful way of bearing witness to God. For as Micah put it: What does the Eternal One require of you? Only to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

1You can read our sermons at https://www.arksynagogue.org/thoughts/ or watch my sermon on YouTube.

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