Yesterday morning on Shabbat, our community returned to public reading of the Torah–with all of the requisite restrictions from the Ministry of Health–for the first time in almost six weeks. Even though we were able to return to a little bit of normal, the masks and praying outside in the courtyard of the Synagogue is a strong reminder that we are still very far from returning to “normal.”
The beginning of Parshat Emor deals with particular limitations and requirements of the Cohanim–the Priests. After a long list of particulars, including how a Cohen is expected to mourn differently, who a Cohen can and cannot marry and physical blemishes that render the Cohen unfit to perform the sacrifices in the Holy Temple, there is a verse with four mundane but very important words that are easy to miss, yet carry incredible importance and relevance at this time. “Moses spoke to Aaron and to his sons, and to all the Children of Israel.” (Leviticus 21:24) It is very easy to gloss past this verse without noticing anything special since this is often how the Torah speaks, reminding us that Moses is instructing the People of Israel in the name of Gd. However, a number of the commentators point out that the second half of the verse is superfluous, “and to all the Children of Israel”–why are they mentioned here? Aren’t these limitations for the Cohanim in particular? The midrash teaches that there is a mutual responsibility here, and this verse points to the shared responsibility of both the Cohanim to be particular in the restrictions on their own behavior, and also the involvement of the rest of the People of Israel, and in particular the leaders, to actively take a role in ensuring that the Cohanim are keeping to their responsibility.
The success of the project depends on everyone! And we all share the responsibility in making sure that one another keeps to the standards that are expected of them, even when it seems like it is not another’s place to get involved. Maybe it’s just the Corona in the air (or hopefully, trapped behind our face-masks and *not* actually in the air!), but as we begin to loosen the restrictions from the past month, how do we share responsibility for the actions that we take as we slowly emerge from social isolation? To what extent are we dependent on each other, and what is the place of the individual in contradistinction to the general public?
Tomorrow night will begin Lag B’Omer, yet it will be very different this year in Israel. The day is celebrated with a massive gathering in honor of the ancient sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai at his gravesite in Meron. This gathering has grown in recent years to 500,000 people coming together to sing and dance throughout the night and day. They come to light bonfires, to study, and to share in the celebration of the inner spiritual dimension of the Torah. This year will be very different, as there will be a single bonfire in Meron, but no huge celebration. How can we understand this in light of our previous discussion about the Cohanim?
There is a very powerful teaching from the Shem Mishmuel (early 20th century Poland) that can help us understand a little more here. During these days of the Counting of the Omer, the Talmud tells us the students of Rebbe Akiva were dying from a plague, and the cause was that they weren’t giving honor to each other. We cannot possibly *not* ask: How could it be that the students of perhaps one of the greatest Jewish teachers of all time weren’t giving honor to each other!? Furthermore, Rebbe Akiva himself was known for teaching that the most important rule in the Torah is to love your neighbor as yourself?!
The Shem Mishmuel answers by writing that the students were on such a high level that they achieved total equality and oneness. This sounds great, no? There is a midrash that talks about when the Israelites got to Mt. Sinai, they were totally united, and this is what made them fitting to receive the Torah–that they were totally connected as one, in a complete and total unity. But it is also taught that if one person was missing, or if there is a Torah scroll that has one letter missing or changed, that it is invalid. We need every individual. This is the beginning of the answer. If we’re all united and blur the distinctiveness, it can’t possibly work!
So the Shem MiShmuel writes that the students of Rebbe Akiva were so united, so connected, so unified, so like-minded, that they forgot to recognize and honor the uniqueness and the strengths and talents of each other. It’s like you never saw your left hand say to right hand, “Right on! You did a great job today!” You never heard your nose say to your leg, “It was fantastic how you walked up those stairs!” It wouldn’t happen. Our bodies (please Gd), should be well functioning units that are totally interconnected and sailing smoothly. So much so, that the discrete parts never recognize each other and definitely don’t honor each other. This was the “problem” with the students of Rebbe Akiva not giving honor to each other.
Now we have to go a step farther. We’re going to look at the astrological symbols for the three Hebrew months that these 7 weeks cover. The first is the month of Nisan, which is the sheep, the second is Iyar which is a bull, and the third is Sivan which is twins. In leaving Egypt in the Exodus (which was in Nisan), we needed to be united together. You have to eat the Paschal lamb with a group. Also we were like sheep following Moses and Hashem, without stories of individuals. The work and initiative came from Gd and Moses and the Israelites followed along. Marching into the month of Iyar, which makes up the majority of this period of time, the bull shows us that there is a need for strength and individuality. A need for self-discovery and growth. This brings us to Sivan, the month of the holiday of Shavuot, of receiving the Torah. The symbol here is twins–when we’re totally connected, even almost the same, yet totally discrete and independent.
This is the three-stage process that we have to go through to merit to receive the Torah as a community. Yes we have to be connected and concerned for our brothers and sisters, but we have to also remember their individuality and particularity.
When it comes to building a healthy, caring and supportive community, we also need to find this balance between the individual and the community. This process will bring all to unite as “twins” like the Israelites received the Torah on Shavuot in what our Mystical Tradition relates to as a ‘wedding’ between Israel and Gd, as if to say that they have become distinct individuals who are inextricably bound together.
What is this teaching us not to do? If Gd forbid, a community focuses only on their similarities, or even worse, if one gives up his individuality, and thinks that he’s doing it all for another, or if one person forces the other to change and be more like him, they miss the balancing “bull month”, and therefore will not arrive at the “twin” stage of unified individuals. Yet at the same time, radical self-expression could possibly endanger others at this time.
We need to learn to see us as one community built of individuals. Each individual’s actions matter and make an impact, and we are each responsible for each other. Just as Moses adds four words to teach all of the Israelites about the commandments for the Priests–it is to share in the responsibility, to build a checks-and-balances system where we are all responsible.
This year more than ever, the spiritual teachings of Lag B’Omer and unity take on a new relevance when the physical health of our community depends on each other as well. As we dance together but apart this Lag B’Omer, in our own homes and not in Meron, may we be blessed to find the strength in our mutual responsibility for one another by recognizing that we are each taking care of everyone else by not coming together.
By being apart this year, we are actually being as together as we possibly can. Lag Sameach!