Parshat Emor: Always a Voice, Never a Prophet
I had an interesting conversation at our online coffee this week about prophecy. Judaism no longer believes in prophecy. Not that it doesn’t exist, but that it doesn’t work. The goal of the prophetic era was to have people change their behaviours and improve. Prophecy ended because, it seems, no one ever wanted to repent or change their ways. We don’t like being told we’re doing it wrong, and we especially don’t like someone who thinks they’re speaking for God telling us we’re doing it wrong. Even if we were to admit we don’t get everything perfect, and so, perhaps, we’re doing things wrong, we don’t want someone else to tell us how to do it better. Literally put, prophecy is God, the Parent, constantly looking over your shoulder and telling you how wrong you are, how you’ve failed, and how you should fix your life. And while truth is on the side of the prophet, none of us want to hear it.
I remember transitional moments in my life, when I got married, when I had kids, when I had to figure out how to raise them… all those moments with my parents’ voices in my head. The recurring phrase I kept hearing was ‘one day you’ll know what I mean’, it’s the hauntingly truthful phrase we all encounter at some point. With age, we all come to realize how our parents were probably right most of the time…but none of us want to live in that realization every moment. Prophecy can’t possibly work.
Interestingly, the Torah spends very little time talking to us about prophecy and much more time talking to us about accountability. The Torah is not interested in how we judge each other as failures, it’s more interested in how we can redirect our mistakes. I am accountable to look at myself honestly, acknowledge the mistakes, correct them, and try better next time — knowing I will stand again in this cycle of error and correction, as I make my next mistake — I’m only human after all.
When we all stand together in that system of values and reflection, we stand as a people. When some of us consider ourselves privileged, closer to God, hearing the Divine Voice telling us Torah speaks exclusively to them in the ways only they can hear, that’s when we are told to respond and push back.
In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Emor, God tells Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons, the priestly class, on how they should behave. Most of the laws are particular to them and the lives they must lead as ritual civil servants. That’s not the part that’s unusual. The commentaries raise the question about why they are being forbidden to do the things everyone else is forbidden to do? Why do those laws have to be repeated here?
The priests are forbidden to create bald spots on their heads out of sorrow. But earlier in the Torah we were all forbidden to create these bald spots during mourning. The priests are told not to gouge their flesh or cut themselves as a show of grief — something we were all forbidden to do. Why the repetition?
The Torah is addressing the danger of defining a group within the people as facilitators of the holy. The risk is the perception of holy privilege; the risk is the conclusion that the same rules that apply to everyone, somehow don’t apply to them. The Torah shuts the door to that thinking before the door can open.
In the future, Israel will demand that the prophet, Samuel, anoint a king for us. God tells Samuel to make sure the king knows that he is subject to the same laws of Torah to which Israel is subject. Close the door of privilege before it opens.
Today, the whole world is sitting vulnerable to Covid 19, the deadly, mutating virus we are yet to subdue. Judaism has told us, more times than we care to remember, that we are commanded to act as a people, secure the health and safety of ourselves and those around us. Our Jewish values and Jewish law never waiver on this. And yet, we still know of Jewish places that think the laws against gatherings, and staying at home to keep everyone safe, somehow don’t apply to them. The risk of feeling privileged is not unusual, but having Jewish leaders who support that view, and do not step forward to close that door, is baffling.
Today, Lag BaOmer, is a day for us to celebrate Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. A sage from the second century who opened the world of Jewish mysticism for us and offered us the ‘keys to the kingdom’. A man who endured and lived in the extremes of creation to finally emerge into the world by understanding the delicate balance of it all. A brilliant teacher who told his students that if they are to seek him out, as he protects himself in a cave, they are only to seek him out by disguising themselves from the enemy patrols — they are to only seek him if they too can stay safe.
Unfortunately, there are groups of people within the Jewish community throughout the world who feel that their particular school can remain open while other schools must close, or their synagogue can gather in numbers while other synagogues must not. The Jewish response to these groups is often to remain silent for fear of speaking words of judgment. They are being viewed as the ‘other’ groups. But, we stand as one people, regardless of whether or not we agree with individual choices. We must not forget that if we are silent when we should be protecting each other, we are also deaf to the words of Torah.
Objecting to Jewish values that are ignored, and speaking up to secure the safety of others, is not a moment of prophecy, because we know prophecy won’t work. We are one people and we are reflected in each other. Speaking out against community members who feel entitled is not prophecy, it’s peoplehood.
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