Leviticus 21:1 to 24:22
The text provides details on the major harvest festivals that brought the Israelites closer to God through offerings at the Temple. Today these holidays mark the Exodus and giving of the Ten Commandments. They also provide an opportunity to examine our own spiritual lives and, like the Israelites of Biblical times, establish a closer relationship with God.
“The Eternal One said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them:
None shall defile himself for any (dead) person among his kin, except for the relatives that are closest to him; his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother, also for a virgin sister….” (Lev. 21:1-4) The text continues with other commandments designed to maintain the holiness of the priests as they perform their duties.
The bulk of the remaining text presents a detailed look at the holy days as celebrated in Biblical times: Shabbat, Passover, counting the omer which ends in a holiday called Shavuot , Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.
Shabbat is covered with one simple verse: “On six days work, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no work; it shall be a Sabbath of the Eternal throughout your settlements.” (Lev.23:3)
The rest of the text is primarily devoted to the three festivals. In Biblical times these festivals marked major times in the agricultural cycle… Passover – produce began to ripen … Counting of the omer (49 days) which ended in the holiday we call Shavuot . This is the time of the wheat harvest … Sukkot – produce was gathered from the fields. And, as you know, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are only a week before Sukkot. All three were the pilgrimage festivals when offerings were given at the Temple.
Through these holidays the people brought themselves closer to God by preparing and making offerings at the Temple. An article, Insights for Parshah Emor, explains how these holidays can accomplish the same thing for us by bringing us closer to God and creating a more “holy” lifestyle. The article appeared on Chabad.org and was based on the teachings of a Lubavitcher Rebbe and adapted by Moshe Yaakov Wisnefsky. (www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2172095/jewish/Chassidic-Insights.htm).
The article states that, much like the holidays of Biblical times which were based on the harvests, these holidays can be seen as helping us grow and nurture our spiritual selves.
Passover has two main focal points which capture the meaning of the festival:
First – Praise to God for the miracles …. And second, the matzah which illustrates the Israelites’ haste to leave Egypt. This demonstrates the willingness and faith of the people to follow God.
Like the Exodus from Egypt – a starting point for the Israelites in their path toward a real love and devotion for the Eternal, Passover also can mark a starting point for our path toward holiness and a deeper understanding of the ways of God as the story is retold during our seders.
Counting the Omer
Today, the majority of us no longer harvest wheat; so, there is no reason to count the days to the harvest. Instead, the emphasis for this holiday has shifted to the journey from Egypt to Mt. Sinai and the delivering of the Ten Commandments and Torah. The Israelites did not “earn” the Exodus from Egypt. They cried out to God to help free them from slavery. God then acted to free them, not because of their merits, but because of promises made to their forefathers – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At the time of the Exodus they were spiritually the same as before the departure.
In contrast, the Israelites were more prepared for the Ten Commandments and Torah. This preparation came in the form of the lessons taught by the Exodus, splitting of the sea, the manna, the quails, and the water which they always had in the desert. All of these “miracles” occurred on route to Mt. Sinai.
Like the counting of days between harvests during which the grain grew, a contemporary counting of omer can lead us to a spiritual growth. The contemporary counting of the omer can also be compared to the Biblical “miracles” experienced by the Israelites on the way to Mt. Sinai through a process created by the Rabbis of the past. This process is designed to bring our basic emotions under control and lead us toward a more “holy” lifestyle – Emotions included are kindness, severity, beauty, victory, thanksgiving , foundation, and kingdom. A pair of emotions are emphasized during each of the 49 days with the goal of bringing our emotions into a harmonious balance…. For example: When a parent hits a child’s hand to keep from touching a flame, it is an act of severity – but motivated by kindness…. Hence, “severity of kindness.”
As the chart below shows, we add another emotional dimension to the featured trait of the week.
Each day presents us with a specific and clear objective. Through the process our soul gains spiritual growth… like the plants of the Biblical harvests. This process also prepares us for the holiday of Shavuot – the Giving of the Ten Commandments and the Torah.
After the counting of the omer and the focus on our emotions, we are ready to spiritually receive the Commandments and the Torah. Rashi suggested that a reference in the Song of Songs (7:12-13) tells us this is time for the wheat harvest and the eating of leavened bread. This alludes to the movement from unleavened bread of Passover to the harvested wheat and leavened bread of Shavuot. The unleavened bread remains flat and signifies self-concern and selfishness While the leavened bread can signify growth and maturation. The harvest of Shavuot is a time when we as people can rise… like the leavened bread.
While not part of the Exodus / Giving of the Torah story, it has been said that it commemorates the “Clouds of Glory” that encircled and led the Israelites through the wilderness. During Sukkot we are commanded to live in huts, like the Israelites who fled Egypt … and like the workers who harvested the crops. Today, these huts and the celebration of Sukkot remind us of the commandments and our practice of them throughout the year – especially when conceptually combined with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
And so we see how the Biblical harvest holidays can be transformed in a series of holidays that can awaken the spiritual souls in each of us.