Parashat Emor 5784

16 May 2024 – 8 Iyyar 5784

Rabbi Alexandra Wright


Parashat Emor includes among other laws, the regulations for Israel’s sacred times: Shabbat Pesach and Shavuot, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. These are not the only set of verses in the Torah that deal with the festivals, variations are also found in Exodus and Deuteronomy, but they are perhaps the most significant in prescribing that no work should be done on these occasions, and linking the harvest festivals with the law of leaving the gleanings of one’s harvest for the poor and the stranger (23:22).

These verses also include the period of time we know of as sefirat ha-omer – the counting of the omer – between the second day of Pesach and Shavuot. Fifty days are counted until an offering of new grain is brought to the sanctuary and a sacred occasion is observed.

It is in this period of the omer that three modern days of commemoration and celebration have been instituted since the establishment of the State of Israel. Yom Ha-Shoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day on 27 Nisan, instituted by Israeli law in 1953, Yom Ha-Zikkaron, the Day of Memorial for Fallen Soldiers and now for civilians who have died in terror attacks and in other ways in Israel, and on the following day, Yom Ha-Atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day.

For the last 19 years, Yom Ha-Zikkaron has been the occasion for an alternative ceremony, organised by the Bereaved Parents’ Circle and Combatants for Peace in which Palestinian and Israeli speakers are invited to speak about their own painful losses, the trauma they have experienced, and their activism in these two organisations. Courageously, one speaker after another – a Jewish speaker, followed by an Arab speaker – each having lost a close member of their family in the conflict – tell their stories, voice their desire to end the occupation and hostilities and to create a climate of dialogue and peace.

Two years ago the ceremony opened with two actors, one a Jewish Israeli, the other Palestinian Arab, reading a poem by Yehuda Amichai, ‘The Place where we are right’:

From the place where we are right

Flowers will never grow

In the spring.

The place where we are right

Is hard and trampled

Like a yard.

But doubts and loves

Dig up the world

Like a mole, a plough.

And a whisper will be heard in the place

Where the ruined

House once stood.


In Hebrew the poem is composed of a mere 38 words, each line no more than three or four words, apart from one line of five words. ‘From the place where we are right’ situates poet and reader in a place of unbending, complacent self-righteous judgement. Ha-makom – ‘the place’ is not only the earth beneath our feet, the land that has been ‘given’ to us, but our firmly-held opinions that tether us to fixed attitudes and an unwillingness to change. That place is hard and trampled like a yard, it yields no growth, no innovation and no change, a

place where flowers will never grow – even in the spring. One can hear in the consonants of the words Amichai uses the hardness of the place where he stands: Ha-makom she-bo anu tzod’kim, hu ramus v’kasheh, k’mo chatzeir – these words convey the image of a place that has been crushed and trampled upon for generations. It is like a chatzeir – an enclosure, a cattle yard, or the courtyard of a palace, sealed off from fields and open country. How can there be any transformation in a place where stones are embedded, and trodden down over many ages, where not even the tiniest flower or plant can grow in their cracks?

But in the second part of the poem, Amichai suggests that s’fakot v’ahavot – ‘doubts and loves’ can loosen those hard stones, so that they crumble (lit’cho’ach k’mo chafarperet v’charish); and the images he uses, are of a mole, tunnelling deep in the earth, pushing up mounds, unsettling the land, or a plough that turns over the earth, burying decaying crop remains and weeds and bringing nutrients to the surfaces. When we step back and let go of implacable judgements, the often-mistaken knowledge that we are always right in what we think and how we see the world, then new things can grow, there are new possibilities. ‘And a whisper will be heard in the place/ where the ruined/ house once stood.’

In Hebrew, there is a deeper dimension to the poem. Ba-makom – ‘in the place’ – may refer obliquely to Jerusalem. This is how the Torah refers to the city in Deuteronomy – ‘in the place where the Eternal One will choose as a dwelling place for the Divine Name’ (12:11). And it is the Temple Mount and the Sanctuary which is to be built there. So the place where we hold ourselves to be right is also the place we hold sacred in some way and the fear of allowing the beliefs and opinions to be loosened and unearthed is a fear of betraying what we believe to be immune from question or criticism – our sacred cows if you like.

That reference to the Temple Mount becomes more evident as we move to the end of the poem: U’l’chishah tishma ba-makom/ she bo hayah ha-bayit/ asher necherav – ‘And a whisper will be heard in the place/ Where the ruined/ House once stood.’ What is this ‘whisper’? Is it perhaps an echo from ancient times – the Psalms sung by the Levites in the Temple, the cries of those who wept when the Temple was destroyed? Or is it our own prayer – ‘the anguished or whispered prayer’ of a people who seek God out of their distress, a reference to Isaiah 26:16: ‘O Eternal One! In their distress, they sought You; Your chastisement reduced them to tzakun lachash – anguished whispered prayer…’

At the poem’s centre, at its turning point are the two words s’fakot v’ahavot – ‘doubts and loves.’ To doubt and to love is to take risks, to churn up our worlds, to live with uncertainty, sometimes with fear. To doubt is to acknowledge that we don’t know which way to turn, to be in a place in which we may not be right, but we may not be wrong, to fluctuate, to be unearthed and therefore to be uncovered and vulnerable. And to love, to be loved is also to expose ourselves to risk and vulnerability, to pain and to passion.

The poem expresses a fundamental truth about the danger and violence of implacability and the possibilities that are created through something more tentative and more questioning. Poetry, music, art, prayer, and spiritual and cultural events such as this version of Yom Ha-Zikkaron, that draws on different narratives and lived experience, unearth our preconceptions, they soften the stones of our heart, so that flowers can grow in the spring.

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