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The Gifts of the Holy Days – Torah Portion Emor

©Rabbi Mordecai Finley

Our Torah portion, Emor, has the most detailed list in the Torah of the Jewish Festivals and other Holy Days. This Torah portion gives us the opportunity not only to study what the various holidays are, but also to contemplate what we mean by the idea of “holy day.” To discuss the meaning of a holy day, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the idea of a personal holy day, and then expand that into the idea of a communal holy day. I’ll end with a brief discussion of how Passover can be a gift to humankind. In other words, I believe our holidays all have a universalistic dimension and are placed in the public domain, with our blessing.

What are personal holy days? There are moments in our lives in which the whole universe seems to open up. We all have moments of sublime integration, truth piercing the heart, a moment when all is known, when the mystery unfolds. This opening might happen in moments of synchronicity – coincidences far outstripping their mathematical probability. People say to me, “I feel that the Universe is speaking to me.” “Probably so, from the sound of things,” I reply. Those moments of mystical clarity and depth, of the world sparkling out a secret code, however, will soon pass.  We only have a memory of the magic.

Now what? Therefore what?

Now what? We must turn those moments into personal holy days.

Therefore what? Therefore, know you have a soul, that there is mystery right at the threshold, waiting to be known, and that your soul lives for these mysteries.

How do we turn these moments into personal holy days? First, memorize the moment. Tell the story to yourself and others. Memorize the place, the before and after. What the moment meant to you. Memorize the date and time.

Second, know that this moment is soul-awakening. Your soul is experiencing the world in your depths, just as you are working (and working through) your life up on the surface. Most of us don’t actively and consciously know that the soul is alive, experiencing, interpreting, creating knowledge, working to communicate to us in intuitions and spiritual instincts, in moments of beauty and truth, in hopes and dreams. Our souls tell us that life is meaningful. When we are rooted in the soul, purpose will grasp us. We don’t find purpose. Purpose finds us. We must be awake and remember and prepare ourselves for the next time the mystery appears. Our personal holy days will help us stay awake and remember.

Your soul is experiencing the world in your depths, just as you are working (and working through) your life up on the surface.

Third, create a memento. When I was 14, in 1969, I went to Yosemite National Park for a week. I had a series of remarkable experiences. I picked out a twig to memorize that week. Over time, I lost the twig. When I think of the twig, though, it all comes back to me.

Our conscious lives are filled with mementos, places, moments, experiences, some alone, some with others. Together, these moments engrave our identities onto the tablets of our hearts, as the mystery and its depths announce themselves, by thunder or whisper, into our lives.

Groups of people, communities, also have those spiritual identities. Jewish festivals are notable in this way. Our festivals, chagim, are memories of transformative moments (such as Passover) or are designed to create transformative moments (such as Rosh HaShanah). In each holy day, we have stories, rituals, liturgies, symbols, and paths of transformation. Passover, our most widely celebrated festival, contains every meaningful element of both marking and creating group consciousness. We have a story, tangible (and tastable) rituals, an ever-growing panoply of symbols, guidance for reflection, and plenty of opportunity for fun, meaning, and creativity. Our memory of the redemption from Egypt shapes our communal sense of self in many ways. For example, we read:

You shall do no wrong in judgment, in measurement of weight, or capacity. You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah (a bushel), and a just hin (a sixth of a bushel); I am Adonai your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt. (Leviticus 19:35-36)

Defrauding is not only wrong; it is offensive to God. God did not bring us out to Egypt to cheat each other. Egyptian slavery is engraved on the heart, essential for our identity.

We suffered bitter work and brutal treatment in Egypt. We are taught that we were redeemed by a God who has a purpose for us, to create a “nation of priests, a holy people.” Freed slaves would create a consciousness of law and obligation, to be just and fair, never to forget, and to cultivate the world of the soul and closeness to God. Each of our holidays has its unique message, history, rituals, practices, symbols, and meanings, all comprising paths to transformation.

The story and rituals of Passover were created by the Jewish people, but, in my opinion, are gifts to humankind. We recently had a worker in our home, who saw all our Passover preparation and Seders from a bit of a distance. This person, a devout Christian, was filled with questions. Did we actually just celebrate the Last Supper?

We shared that the Passover Seder described in Gospels was Jesus’s last supper (he died soon after), but not the last Passover Seder of the Jewish people. We continue to have those suppers. Our worker was truly astounded to learn that that “supper” of the Gospels continues until this very day. I brought out my Spanish language Bible and we read the texts related to Passover. He asked if he and his family could perform this ritual. I said yes; it is our gift to you. Please put your Salvadorian Catholic stamp on it.

We know how the Jewish Exodus story played a huge role in American Black slaves seeking freedom. These texts and rituals can play a deep role in the lives of any suffering people or even any suffering person, both in its reaching for freedom and as a guide toward inner reflection and transformation.

Our tradition, especially our holiday tradition as preserved in Torah portion Emor, is a gift of the ancestors down to you, to me, to us all, and to anyone who wants to taste of their transformative power.

About the Author
Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the rabbi of Ohr HaTorah Synagogue, a mostly online congregation in Los Angeles. He is a professor (on hiatus) at the Academy for Jewish Religion, Los Angeles. He holds a doctorate in Religion-Social Ethics from the University of Southern California. He is married to Meirav Shevah Finley. Three of his four children live in Israel; two are veterans of the IDF.
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