354 DAYS AT A TIME – Emor –Lev.21-24, by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
You probably heard about the fellow who decided to become an atheist. He left his family’s house of worship and turned his back on religion. But then a few weeks later, he came back.
“You changed your mind? How come?”
“Atheists have no holidays.”
This Torah reading outlines the Jewish calendar, which provides our annual cycle of holidays both serious and upbeat, and all sanctified by faith. Indeed, Judaism as a way of life is closely connected with the calendar. That connection goes back to our origins. Moses reminded us that we left Egypt in the spring month. Count 49 days – 7 weeks from the Exodus, and on the 50thday we reach Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and become a nation. And here in Leviticus 23 we go on to detail the dates of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Succoth – New Year, Day of Atonement, and the Harvest festival, all in the fall.
So why is New Years Day celebrated on the first day of the seventh month? Precisely because Nisan, the month that includes Passover, is the month of freedom, and is specifically designated as the first month of the year in the very story of the Exodus. The Talmud’s tractate Rosh Hashana lists four “New Year’s days” every year: one for kings, one for numbering years, one for planting trees and one for tithes. In our urban culture, of course, we limit our ceremonial New Year to the 1stof Tishri. That is the day we change the number of the year.
As we all know, the Jewish calendar, like the Chinese, is based on the moon. 354 days on average, instead of the 365 of the solar calendar. That causes considerable variety in how Jewish holidays compare with those of our neighbors. In 2011 and 2019, for example, Hanukkah coincided with Christmas. In 2013 it coincided with Thanksgiving.
7 times in every 19 years, the Jewish calendar adds a month during the spring, forming a leap year that resolves the lunar-solar difference. An ancient scholar named Shmuel who headed the academy in a Babylonian town called Nehardea was responsible for much of the development of the calendar used today. The Talmud describes him as a man who knew the orbits of the planets as well as he knew the streets of Nehardea. This self-taught astronomer laid the groundwork for a system that gives Jews the world over the opportunity to celebrate their holidays at the same time. In the days of much slower communication, they had to add a day to the holiday if they lived outside of Israel, in order to make sure they were all observing the occasion together. Hence we still have the Second Day of many festivals in traditional Diaspora communities but not in Israel. A notable exception to this rule is Rosh Hashana itself, the New Year, which is observed for two days in Israel too. That second day is not considered an “second holiday of exile” (yomtov sheyni shel goluyos) but the two days are called “one long day” (yoma arikhta). One more opportunity to hear the call of the Shofar!
With all its complex history, the Jewish calendar constitutes a sacred schedule giving us colorful special days that add meaning to all the grey weekdays of our lives.
Personally, of course, I feel a special connection to “Emor” because I chanted this section at my own Bar Mitzvah. That was a long time ago, but the message of this reading rings just as strongly in my ears today. Opening with detailed rules and regulations for the priests – the Cohanim, Aaron’s sons and descendants – from their personal conduct to their sacrificial duties, “Emor” continues with the entire calendar sequence. Between these two sections, we find two short sentences that give all the laws their basis. They come at the end of Chapter 22. There, verse 31 says: “Keep my commandments and do them; I am G-d.” And verse 32 adds: “Do not profane My holy name, and I will be sanctified among the Israelites; I am G-d who sanctifies you.” Here are divinely inspired rules that, if we follow, enable us to achieve Kiddush haShem – sanctifying the Divine name. Violating those rules amounts to Khillul haShem –profaning that name.
Violations can take many forms, some more obvious than others. For example, our Torah instructs us to use true measurements – weights, lengths, coins, all must be accurate. Prevent cheating. In legal disputes, we are cautioned to do justice “justly.” Tricking a witness in a trial, or manufacturing evidence against a litigant – even if you deeply believe him guilty –is unfair and therefore prohibited. In family affairs, acceptable conduct has countless Mitzvos to be observed, including the rights and duties of wife and husband to each other, of parents and children to each other, and of all to the care of ill and dead family members.
Crime and punishment get dealt with in this section too. “One who strikes [wounds or kills] an animal shall pay for the damage. One who kills a human shall die.” But it takes two eye witnesses to convict the killer. All these and many more Mitzvos can be fulfilled – or violated.
Violating a principle of conduct in business, particularly when dealing with Gentiles, can bring serious trouble to the entire community. Our enemies come up with many false charges to support their actions against us. We must not provide them with legitimate cause. In this connection the Hertz commentary quotes the story of the fellow in the boat drilling a hole under his seat. It’s only under his seat, but all will drown. A Jewish crook can give an open door to anti-Semites. That is definitely khillul haShem. And what about the opposite? Suppose we are doing right? Inquisitors demanded “convert or die.” Nazis and jihadis offer no alternative: “Kill the Jews!” Their victims are mourned with the righteous.
All important is not death but life. Living in such a way as to sanctify the name of the G-d we worship involves fulfilling Mitzvos, from observing the occasions of our calendar – Sabbath, festivals, matzoh on Passover and fasting on Yom Kippur – to how we interact with other human beings, Jewish or Gentile. How we live our daily lives makes us aware of those Mitzvos, and carrying them out builds our character. Do we deal honestly in business? Do we respect our elders? Do we teach our children Torah? Do we help the poor? Do we support just causes? That’s the kind of life that sanctifies G-d’s name. That kind of behavior sanctifies our lives. That is Kiddush haShem (sanctifying the Holy Name), Kiddish hakhayyim too (sanctifying life). Torah offers us some practical help to sanctify our lives.
Today and every day, this week and every week, let the words of “Emor” remind us of our ongoing choice: profane or sanctify.