This week’s parsha, Emor, shows us an interesting example of continuity.
For the last few weeks we have learned about the new life that the Jewish people will lead when they enter their Land. Much of the instruction – the mitzvot – has centered around the worship of God: building a Tabernacle where we can focus our worship, creating a family of priests (the Kohanim) and their helpers (the Levi’im), and describing the rituals through which the Children of Israel will direct their attention to God.
In Emor we again see this theme with rules about how the Kohanim must maintain high standards of purity and holiness – they must not contaminate themselves with death except for close relatives, they must choose their wives carefully, they cannot perform their duties when they are ill.
Emor also teaches us the mitzvot of the Festivals – Pesach, the weeks of the offering of the first harvest (the Omer), Shavuot, Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur, Succot and Shemini Atzeret. This annual cycle of holy seasons is something new to the Children of Israel.
For 210 years of enslavement, the Israelites had the stifling continuity of tedium. Every day they engaged in repetitive, backbreaking work, made more demeaning by the fact that much of it was useless – building things in swampy land where structures would fail and have to be rebuilt. Surrounded by idol worship and immorality, their lives were spiritually very low.
Then, suddenly, with the awesome signs and wonders preceding the Exodus, continuity is lost as God’s power over nature is exhibited time and again. Though they knew God worked miracles for their good, they never knew what tomorrow would bring until Moses warned Pharaoh of the next plague. (Think about how your parents feel when the weather forecaster says schools might be closed tomorrow.) Will the Nile be running red with blood? Will all the Egyptian crops be destroyed? Is any of that going to affect us living in the Land of Goshen? However, the loss of continuity was coupled with a renewed spirit through seeing that God worked to deliver the Israelites out of slavery.
One of the ways God helps us live a life of Torah is to give us a life filled with rules that consistently uplifts us spiritually. The Kohanim can only serve in the Tabernacle or Temple when their spiritual purity is continuous. When they have sinned or been in contact with a dead body, their spiritual purity is interrupted. The Temple service they performed was also continuous – every day for centuries, until we were exiled from our Land.
God gave us a schedule of Festivals, where we can celebrate the divine miracles of the past – delivering us from slavery (Pesach), giving us the Torah (Shavuot), bringing us safely through the Wilderness (Sukkot) – as well as the miracles he performs for us even today – giving us crops to eat (the Omer), letting us enjoy another year (Rosh Hashonah), providing a day which will allow us to make up for our sins (Yom Kippur).
My favorite of this parsha’s mitzvot is also about continuity. At the end of the laws about harvesting the crop, counting the Omer and celebrating Shavuot, God commands us to leave the corners of the field for the poor and the proselyte. (Vayikra 23:22) The fruit of a person’s harvest is not only for him, but also for his neighbors who need the blessing of God’s gift of food.
Not only is there continuity in one day’s Temple service to the next and in the cycle of festivals from one year to the next, there is continuity among you and the rest of the Jewish people.