Parashah Ponderings

Finding strength and comfort in the unseen, unheard

Parashat Emor 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת אֱמוֹר
Torah Portion: Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Every Shabbat during our services we recite a prayer asking God to bestow healing and comfort upon individuals who are sick, chronically ill, or recovering from a medical procedure. When we recite this prayer, known as MiSheberach (The One Who Blesses), we also call out names of friends, family members, co-workers, and even complete strangers who are in need of healing. 

The communal list I read during MiSheberach each Shabbat is nearly two pages long; it takes a couple of minutes to read the whole list. Once I am done reading the list, people in the sanctuary or on Zoom will then call out or write in the chat box additional names of people in need of healing. The whole ritual – between offering the prayer and saying the names – takes about five minutes. 

Though those five minutes can sometimes feel like an eternity, they are often the most intentional five minutes of our service. When we pray for the well-being of those we care about, after all, our prayers become more than words on a page, more than rote recitation; our prayers for healing represent our most intensely felt, intensely offered efforts to reach out to the Divine Healer.

What is most curious about the MiSheberach blessing, though, is not its length or its intensity or even the wide range of theological beliefs present in the room that make it meaningful to each of us. What is most curious is that a) most of the people for whom we are praying are not physically present with us, and b) we often hear the names of people we don’t know, many of whom are not members of congregational family. So why bother?

I’d like to offer you one response to this question, though there are many. The prayers we offer for healing are akin to the ner tamid, the “eternal light” that hovers over the bimah, the raised platform in the front of the sanctuary, shedding a dim light over the aron kodesh, the holy ark containing our Torah scrolls – even when nobody is around to see it. The ner tamid represents God’s never ending presence in the world. Our prayers for healing represent our never ending hope that all who are ill will find perfect healing, refuah shelayma. Our concern, our hope, is as real as the light of the ner tamid. Just as we find comfort in knowing that God is always present to us even when we aren’t in the sanctuary to see the light of the ner tamid, so too, do those in need of healing find comfort in our prayers even when they are not present to hear them.

Unlike in our ner tamid, the lights of the original ner tamid, i.e. the menorah that stood outside the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle and, later, in the Temples, the light would die out each day as the olive oil used to fuel the flames would be consumed. Our biblical forebears did not have the benefit of electricity to keep the flame lit at all hours. In essence, it took regular effort to make God’s presence known by lighting the ner tamid in the same way that it takes regular effort to keep the light of hope alive for those in need of healing.

The comparison between the ner tamid and our prayers for healing goes even deeper, though. Notice what we read in this weeks parashah, Parashat Emor

Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact to burn from evening to morning 

Lev. 24:3

Think about it. The light of the ancient ner tamid would glow before the Holy of Holies precisely when there would be the fewest people to see it, from evening to morning! The light would be at its brightest when the kohanim and levi’im were going home from work at night; by the time they returned to work in the morning, the flames would be alive but not as bright, perhaps nearly extinguished. Yet the glow of the ner tamid was still real even when no one was around to see it.

The Torah recognizes that we need to know that God is present when we feel most alone, when we feel most disconnected from what my teacher Rabbi David Teutsch refers to as “the radiant center” of community. After all, it’s easy to feel connected to God and community when one is surrounded by people who are doing holy work, whether that is offering sacrifices in the Temple, serving food in the Community Kitchen, or praying together on Shabbat. Away from those sources of light and love, though, life can feel lonely. It’s at those times when our prayers matter most.

As long as people are suffering, we will say their names and pray for them, no matter how long it takes. You might not hear our prayers. Inevitably, many of those assembled in the sanctuary reciting the prayers won’t know who you are. But think of the words of our prayers like the ner tamid that glows brightest when no one is around. The presence of the Divine is still very real even when it is not seen. Our prayers, too, are still very real even when not heard. 

May you find as much comfort and strength in the words of our mouths as in the light of the eternal flame.

Parashah Ponderings

Feeding God Then and Now

Parashat Emor / פרשת אמור
Torah Portion: Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

 (The priests) are holy to their God and you must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God…. (Leviticus 21:7-8)

That God has no physical body is widely considered a basic tenet of Judaism and is enshrined in Moses Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith.[1] If one were not aware of this tenet, however, one could be led to believe by this week’s parasha that God has not only a nose to smell the pleasing odor of sacrifices but also a mouth and digestive tract with which to consume “the food of your God” offered by the priests! Lest we think for a moment, though, that the Torah is speaking literally about God’s ability to smell, taste and digest food, modern commentators make it very clear that the Torah is speaking symbolically.[2] Biblical Israel most certainly worships God, who “desires their devotion and fellowship” only.[3] The biblical author simply borrowed “the idiom common to ancient religions” of a god sustained by offerings of food.[4]

The symbolic nature of “the food of God,” notwithstanding, I find this imagery striking given the role food played in the culture of biblical Israel as well the role it plays among societies throughout the world today. Regarding the former, one need only recall how Abraham and Sarah hastened to serve their guests a lavish meal in Genesis 18:1-8. What began with the intention to fetch his unexpected guests “a morsel of  bread,” soon became cakes of choice flour, curds, milk and a calf served as Abraham “waited on them under a tree as they ate” (Gen. 18:8). Abraham and Sarah, thus, instituted the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, with food playing a central role in its fulfillment.

Are we really any different today? We continue to honor visitors to our homes by setting out a nosh, if not an entire meal. Outside of the United States, in fact, hospitality is so closely linked with family honor that one refuses an invitation to another’s home at peril of insulting them greatly. As a species, to be sure, one way human beings show honor and respect to others is by feeding them and by graciously receiving others’ hospitalityin return.

To my mind, when we humans feed one another, we give expression to the same ideals expressed through the biblical sacrificial system. There, burnt offerings emitted a reach nichoach ladonai, a pleasing odor to God. Ismar Schorsch, chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, observes that the ancient rabbis made a word play of “reach nichoach” to get at what was really at stake in the sacrificial rituals:

An early midrashic work after the destruction of the Second Temple reconceptualized the nature of its cultic worship. Brilliantly, the midrash realized that “nihoah” (pleasant aroma) is related etymologically to the word “nahat” or in the rabbinic phrase “nahat ruah” (pleasant feeling). That connection enabled the midrash to read “reah nihoah” as “nahat ruah.” The satisfaction God experienced at the sight of the sacrifice was internal and spiritual: “I commanded and My will was done,” says the midrash. In other words, the cult had nothing to do with divine need. Israel had submitted to God’s will, whatever its intent, and that alone was the source of God’s pleasure.[5]

When we feed others, no doubt, it often is to satisfy someone’s need, but just as often it is to please them. Thus, what we do within the community of humankind mirrors the ancient rite to evoke God’s pleasure; both involve the provision of nachat ruach.

This relationship between real human hospitality and priestly sacrifice, with all its symbolism, has the power to transform us. If we see “the other” as created in God’s image, then the hospitality we extend to our neighbor is no different from the rituals through which the holy priests showed God their deference and devotion. In both cases, then and now, we please God. In both cases, setting out food is a sacred act, the execution of which imbues our lives with holiness.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Dan

[1] For a list of Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith, see http://www.jewfaq.org/beliefs.htm. As Daniel Septimus points out in his article at http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-thirteen-principles-of-faith/, Maimonides principles were not universally accepted, including the principle #3 on incorporeality.

[2] See, for example, Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, p. 718: “Offerings to God, often called “food” (lehem), are considered food for God in a symbolic sense. See also this article by Ismar Schorsch: https://www.jtsa.edu/prebuilt/ParashahArchives/5760/emor.shtml.

[3] The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, p. 17, cf Lev. 3:11.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ismar Schorsch, commentary on Parashat Emor at https://www.jtsa.edu/prebuilt/ParashahArchives/5760/emor.shtml