Saturday, May 21, 2016

Making the Sacred Calendar Count

היום שמונה ועשרים יום שהם ארבעה שבועות בעמר
Today is twenty-eight days--that is four weeks--of the omer
מלכות שבנצח
A day of leadership in a week of perseverance

Yes, another day missed...another opportunity to start again. I think a good way to do that is share the drash I gave at The Kitchen last night.

Shabbat Shalom

One of the things I enjoy about tutoring my b’nei mitzvah students are the side discussions I get to have. I will admit, sometimes those discussion have little to do with Torah—there is talk of sports, or shoes. Recently, in the midst of one of an exchange about books, it came to light that I had never read the Harry Potter books. “Well” my student said, “You always give me homework, Marilyn, I have homework to give YOU” And so now I am reading the books as she lends them to me, one by one. (With tears in my eyes, I just finished the fourth book, looking forward to the next.) Not only am I enjoying the writing and the characters and the arc of the stories, I’m seeing so many messages of ethical and social and justice and life lessons that I know I will return to, weaving them into my teaching as I continue to uncover the different layers of meaning that will, may I say “magically” come to light.

In Harry Potter’s world, he often has something in mind that needs to be done and the tools to lead him there, only to find that there was a something else calling him to go another way, which those same objects are able to guide him, albeit in a different manner than expected. That echoes the way I often deal with Torah—thinking I want to study or teach one part of the text, but something else becomes illuminated which turns out to be much more appropriate to the time and space that I’m in that particular moment.

That is what happened on the way to preparing this drash. Months ago, when I asked Noa if I could share a teaching on this week’s Torah Parashah, Emor—I had a very specific teaching in mind that I wanted to share, dealing with the proscribed necessary perfection of the priests who offer the sacrifices, and what that sometimes troubling section says to us in the context of the world today. It’s a good teaching and I hope, someday to give you that teaching---but that will not happen today.

Because as I went to gather my sources, my searches kept taking me to a different part of the parashah, and it soon became clear that was what I needed to talk about, and share. So as I go where some invisible force led me, you will all see why it was where I needed to go this evening.

Last week, in Kedoshim, which is the very center of the Torah, we learned much of the code that gives us a framework for living in community, how to treat each other and ourselves with compassion—which is a definition of being Kedoshim - living in holiness.

In this week’s parashah, we begin a turn to matters seemingly more external—of our relationship with the land and the seasons. One entire chapter is dedicated to laying out the Jewish calendar, when and how to celebrate the festivals of the year.

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks pointed out in his commentary on Emor this week, there are five specific mentions of these festivals in the Torah. The first two come in Shemot, Exodus, within first groups of laws we are given as a people. Only the three main festivals are mentioned—Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot— and the emphasis is on the tie to the yearly agricultural cycle. This is a good introduction to these special, sacred times. It serves as an important, concrete connection for an uprooted people in need of some grounding.

That leaves three more accounts. Two of those three come as the Israelites are poised to go into the land. Towards the end of the book of Numbers, we get a detailed description of the rituals involved with the offerings for each of the festivals that will take place at the Temple when it is built. Here we get celebrations of the full sacred calendar—weekly, Shabbat; monthly, Rosh Chodesh, the new month; Pesach and Shavuot; “Yom Teruah,” Rosh Hashanah, a day of “Kipurim” of atonement; and Sukkot. These sacrifice based rituals bring a different kind of understanding of the festivals, with a focus on honoring the One who created this world of living.

Later on, in Deuteronomy, it’s Moses is pouring out his heart and soul to these people he has been leading for forty years, giving his last instructions, for they will now go on without him. It’s about celebrating the festivals as a people, as a society—gathering together at the Temple in Jerusalem, leaving no one out,

ובנך ובתך ועבדך ואמתך והלוי והגר והיתום והלמנה
“your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levites, the stranger, the fatherless, the widow”

No matter what gender or status in the world—it is important to maintain the connection to our people, including all who wish to join.

What separates this telling of our celebrations in Emor, in the book of Leviticus, in this book that talks about holiness, from the others is that this telling, as Rabbi Sacks says, is not in terms of the ritual offerings of the sacrifices which we hear about in Numbers, nor about the unifying, inclusive societal aspect of the gathering together—not that there’s anything wrong with either of those. But here we are reminded of the times of internal, spiritual “checking in” with ourselves that are built into our sacred calendar.

The times given here are not just in specific days and months, but described most often using the words “Mo’aid” and “Mikra Kodesh.”

The Mo’ed – is a specific time, a fixed time, but it means more than that. The Ohel Mo’ed, the tent of meeting, is the sacred place where Moses and Adonai meet—a personal meeting with God, with the Transcendent spirit. In the last line of the mystical poem that began our entrance into Kabbalat Shabbat, Yedid Nefesh, we sang “מחר אהוב כי בא מועד” “Hurry, loved one, the appointed time has come”—it’s an intimate time of meeting, like a lover’s tryst. When we enter into Shabbat, we leave the rest of the week behind and make time to meet with ourselves on a different level, connecting to an introspective world.

Mikra Kodesh, echoing the name of this book of holiness, Vayikra, “and he called” Mikra Kodesh, often translated as “sacred occasion,” is to be called to holiness, to be brought close, with affection, with a feeling of intimacy. Each of the occasions mentioned – Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot gives us the opportunity to spend time in that closeness, with ourselves and with others. The Mo’ed and the Mikra Kodesh combine to give us a fixed, holy, intimate moment—almost a stoppage of time, a kind of meditation, a presence that can only happen when we remove ourselves from everyday matters.

We live in secular time, in a material, physical world. The sacred Jewish calendar gives us a way to take off from that world, and help us gain a sense of our inner selves that is not always possible in the hustle and bustle of our lives. It is time we need but don’t always know how to access. The Torah is the instruction manual for how to make this happen.

There is one more important occasion given in this weeks Torah—one that lets us bring a piece of that spiritual intimacy into our everyday lives. That combines the agricultural, the ritual, the societal, and the spiritual into a period of the year. And that is……the counting of the omer.

We are instructed for “count for ourselves” the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. We count an omer – a measure of grain—for each of those days between Pesach—a commemoration of liberation and freedom; and Shavuot—the commemoration of the revelation of the Aseret Debrot, of the 10 Utterances, know as the 10 commandments.

We follow and maintain a connection to the earth as we acknowledge and track the early harvest of spring to the enjoyment of the first fruits of the harvest—taking the time to be thankful for what has been created, and a reminder to take care of what we have.

And each year, we count for ourselves, taking an omer, a measure of ourselves, taking a-count of where we are, in preparation for what lies ahead. We take the same journey of growth that our ancestors took as they went from the slavery of Egypt, Mitzrayim, that Narrow place—to the celebration of revelation, of how to live with ourselves, together, into a place we can call home.

We count as a people, each of our counting joining with all the others who count with us.

We continue in our lives, yet take a moment to pause and reflect each evening. We are thankful for the Kabbalistic mystics who gave us the intentions of chesed/loving-kindness, gevurah/strength, tiferet/compassion, netzakh/perseverance, hod/humility, yesod/foundation, and malchut/leadership/majesty, that we can use each day to help bring that intimate, spiritual closeness into each day.

I've been counting the omer for fifteen years, with varying degrees of engagement. Fourteen years ago, I counted while undergoing chemotherapy--my first infusion was on the first of Nissan; the final infusion was on the forty-ninth day of the omer. Instead of counting down the days, like a prisoner in a cell waiting for release, I was able to count up, using the Kabbalistic intentions to guide the way. I learned many things that year, not the least of which was that strength does not need to be characterized by a closed fist. You can show strength with an open palm when you need to ask for help.

And if some years, we can’t seem to find our measure; we can’t seem to find the connections, it all seems out of reach---well, that also brings in the beauty of the practice. Unlike Harry Potter, we don’t need wands or potions or spells -- for the cycle is always be there for us each year to tap into.

And brings me here, to this day, and this time to take a breath and continue the journey of this count—stopping to take a-count of where I am, right now, happy to share it with you. 

 So, let’s count….

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