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Emor 5781 ~ April 30, 2021

As the death toll mounts in northern Israel this morning, we are saddened and shocked.  Today is Lag Ba’Omer. It is a day of celebration on the Jewish calendar ending a period of communal remembrance of persecution of Rabbi Akiva’s students. Instead, we begin to mourn the victims of a stampede in Mt. Meron who were gathering to celebrate the day at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a student of Rabbi Akiva. We are also disturbed by the new round of rocket attacks from Gaza upon Israel and the anti-Semitic vandalism and attack upon three synagogues in Riverdale (the Bronx), New York, this past Shabbat.

As some Jewish communities begin to reconvene, we too must reflect upon what that truly means for our own congregation. I wonder how we are all going to react to the moment that we all join once again in person for a religious service. This past Wednesday evening’s JETI Talk with Dr. Simeon Kimmel was eye opening for all of us. He patiently walked us through the many questions, some of which were related to what we can do in person at services. For example, is singing permissible and by whom? Do the clergy need to be focused behind a plastic shield or face shield? Social distancing? Tent vs. indoors… and so many other queries. He answered questions related to hospital visitations and the precautions and protocols we all need to take when visiting.

Our Torah reading for this Shabbat begins with the word “Emor.” “Here is what you need to tell them.” In this case, it is in relationship to the protocols that Aaron’s sons and all the priests serving in the sanctuary of God were to respect following the death of any individual in the community, but most specifically related to their own immediate blood relatives. 

In many ways, the individuals mentioned for the priest may be no different today for us as the ones who we may feel most comfortable in including in our bubble of protection. At the same time, each day we are learning more from the CDC regarding how we can begin to return to a more normal togetherness with others who have been vaccinated. I know that we are all looking forward to that moment, even with the many trepidations we still are rationalizing.

Rabbi Naomi Kalish, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, pointed out in her message this week a concept of engagement and ritual expressed in the Mishnah for moments of return to a sacred space.  It reflected a concept of strength for the one who participated in expressing the challenges they faced and empathy by those present. While I am not certain that we would engage in such a ritual, I truly believe that our congregation will find the correct words and the correct ways in which to help each person feel comfortable sharing and expressing. I know that when the moment happens, we will all find appropriate rituals and words that will comfort each one of us as we re-enter together in prayer and comradery.

I wondered whether I should wait to teach this Mishnah until we finally decide to be together. In the end I thought that Rabbi Kalish’s message was an important means for us to begin to engage in reflecting upon the rituals and ceremonies that will allow us to not only express the challenges and losses we faced but provide us with the appropriate entrances and choreography we might choose to make.

Rabbi Kalish teaches the Mishnah from Middot in the following manner:

Typically, most people who would enter the Temple precincts would move from the entrance to the right; however, some people would enter to the left, based on recent experiences: people would enter to the left if they were experiencing a hardship, including a person in mourning; a person who had been shunned by their family or community; the caregiver of an ill family member; or one who is preoccupied because of the loss of an important object.

The passage goes on to provide guidance to typical pilgrims when they would encounter those circling in the other direction. They should ask, “Why are you circling to the left?”

If the person responded, “Because I am in mourning,” one should offer the prayer, “May the One who dwells in this house comfort you.”

When encountering a person who says, “I have an ill family member,” one should respond with the prayer, “May the One who dwells in this house have compassion upon your relative.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, the Mishnah specifies that one who was in nidui—a form of excommunication in which someone was shunned by their family or community—should also circle to the left, so that so that those encountering such a person could offer a blessing. The Rabbis debated what blessing to offer this person so that they did not feel judged; the consensus blessing is, “May the One who dwells in this house grant in the hearts of your family or community members to draw you near.”

Underpinning the Mishnah is a care and concern for the affective experience of the observance of the holiday. Though the scripting of exchanges has the resonance of a call and response liturgy, the ultimate goal is human engagement during significant and often difficult times. The cases provided are invitations for future innovation. The person moving to the right who is not experiencing hardship is instructed to begin the encounter not with a gesture of help but with a question— “Why are you circling to the left?” The encounter begins with the caregiver not knowing, and with deference to the one who is literally walking a different path against the mainstream.

In the meantime, may we continue to be a community that fosters such an expression of empathy as we await the day when we move beyond our nuclear bubble experiences of the kohanim, the priest, to one that brings us all together.

Shabbat shalom and happy Lag Ba’Omer,

Rabbi K

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782