“These are My fixed times, the fixed times of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions” (Leviticus 23:2) – so begins this week’s teaching of how we as Jews, construct sacred occasions in time: Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, in the order they are listed and the order we celebrate them. Each festival has its distinct impact on our consciousness, and hopefully behaviour – Pesach, “the season of our liberation” reminds us of our obligation to work for other’s freedom; Shavuot, “the time of giving Torah” reminds us of our obligation to learn to live a values-based meaningful life; Rosh Hashanah, “the day of remembrance”, reminds us how our deeds impact on ourselves, our relationships and our society; Yom Kippur, “the day of forgiveness”, reminds us of the power of compassion and forgiveness; Sukkot, “the season of rejoicing”, reminds us to celebrate life itself.
The sacred times are concentrated between the six months between Pesach and Sukkot, yet the awareness, intent and richness of them should be lived weekly. In Parashah Emor, the festival calendar is introduced by the teaching of Shabbat, which is the first sacred time mentioned in the Torah (in the very first story of the Torah), and which we proclaim in our evening Kiddush as “the first among our days of sacred occasions”. Shabbat forms the model of how we celebrate and commemorate all our other sacred days. Shabbat is an incredible gift for the Jewish people, one that has more significance now than ever, for its very name means “stop”, and in our over-active, intense world, we deeply need to stop our frenetic pace to reclaim this time to reclaim our soul.
Shabbat incorporates all the elements of our other sacred occasions. The Torah teaches that Shabbat is not just a time to remember the creation – that is each and every human being is a spark of the creation and has equal dignity – but also, a time to remember the exodus from Egypt – none of us should be enslaved. Shabbat invokes Shavuot, for a main focus of Shabbat is to learn Torah, to consider what it means to have a values based approach to life. Just as Rosh Hashanah is a time of remembrance, Shabbat offers us the opportunity not just to remember the moments of creation and exodus, but also those of the previous week, giving us a time for reflection over the 25 hours of rest and renewal. With this comes an opening of heart, emulating the energy of Yom Kippur, for Shabbat is about renewing loving relationships – with our inner being and with our loved ones. Finally, Shabbat is meant to be not a time of restriction but the epitome of joy, which is the emotional focus of Sukkot.
Thus, the way the sacred occasions are presented in Parashah Emor teaches us a profound lesson of how to live our lives as Jews in sacred time. In these six months between Pesach and Sukkot, we have five major opportunities to enhance our self- awareness through a specific lens. To live even more deeply fulfilling lives, we can do this on a weekly basis through the celebration of Shabbat, “the first among our days of sacred occasions.” Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Jeffrey B. Kamins OAM Senior Rabbi