Life is not easy. In fact, at times it’s downright infuriating. Our natural tendency is to want to blame someone, and the easiest target is God. We may carry anger at HaShem for our entire lives. As a result, we miss out on decades of spiritual connectedness and comfort.
There is another way, and the Ishbitzer Rebbe (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner) uses this week’s parasha, Emor, as the answer. It contains a list of five kinds of negative thinking, in the form of rules for the high priest, matched with a framework for redirecting our thoughts when they arise, in the form of holidays.
We can’t choose what pain we will experience day to day. We can, however, choose not to let ourselves feel alienated from the Holy One as a result, freeing us to remain open to God’s loving presence in our lives. The Ishbitzer shows us how.
First, the priest is told to avoid funerals, saying it will contaminate him. He cannot grieve in community, even for his own parents. How infuriating for him! For the Ishbitzer, this suggests existential frustration — the hopeless feeling that the world is a shattered place and we can’t fix a thing. We rage at God: “Why don’t You put things right?”
The cure is Passover. Its core message is that God takes us out of Egypt, the narrow place, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. We need never doubt that God will deliver us from our circumstances, and that the world is moving toward a time of Messianic perfection. Pesach tells us to have faith. Change can and will come.
Second, the priest must be unblemished: without disability or disease, injury or scar. This corresponds to the humiliation we feel about our own weaknesses and broken places. We wish we were more beautiful, more admired, more accomplished.
Shavuot is the remedy for this line of thought, the holiday when we commemorate receiving the Torah. Torah, it is said, heals all wounds and perfects all imperfections, because they don’t matter to God. A life of prayer and study, of spiritual attainment, helps us to let go of shallow understanding and to be who we are truly meant to be. Shavuot tells us we are perfect just the way we are.
Third, a priest must rigorously guard his ritual purity, such as by marrying only a virgin. How infuriating for him to be so close to service and then to be made impure by his sexual relationships. This is the sadness of addictions and distractions. We are drawn to the things that seem to bring us relief from the anxiety of life. They may tamp down our loneliness and disappointments, but they push away God and truth in the process. We are left feeling numb, sick and spiritually dead.
The cure is Rosh Hashanah. When the shofar is blown, the world starts over again afresh. The Book of Life opens before us, ready to receive the good news of our readiness to change our ways. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of our neshamah taharah, our eternally pure soul.
Fourth, Emor speaks of ways in which the sacrifices themselves can be unworthy of ritual use. The owners of these offerings might cry out to God, asking why their hard-earned possessions should be judged inadequate. It’s so easy to fall into the self-righteousness of deprivation. “We deserve better!”
Yom Kippur comes to hand us a feeling of infinite riches. By abandoning our worldly pleasures and benefits for a day and focusing solely on God, we see our meager belongings take on a new, perfected light. Yom Kippur says, “I have plenty.”
And finally, the Ishbitzer sees the command for the Kohen to eat the thanksgiving offering “on that day” to point out our tendency to fret about what was or will be, rather than rejoice in what we have right now. We go through our days, flooded by memories and worries. Our thoughts convince us that they alone will bring relief, but they never do. Only by letting go and standing in awe and fear of the Holy One of Blessing can we bring our lives into focus.
This is the teaching of Sukkot, z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy. This moment, this breath, is as flimsy as a leaf-covered hut. But it is God’s promise to protect and surround us, to give us joy and never to abandon us. Sukkot is presence.
As we continue our counting of the Omer toward Shavuot, may the Ishbitzer’s Emor mindfulness practice give us the tools we need to release suffering, and to refine ourselves, like a silversmith pounding shiny bits together to form a whole, holy vessel for receiving Torah.
Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com), a referral agency for professional chaplains and rabbis.