From the holy place he shall not go forth, so that he not desecrate the sanctuary of his God… (Vayikra 21:12).
Leaving the sanctuary,
bewildered, we wander,
although the end of the journey is known.
The quest for awareness
is measured in increments
and each step is charted on tortuous paths.
The pull of the sacred
abates and revives, and we spin
as a lodestone that seeks out the north
and points the way home.
The simple understanding of this verse pertains to the ban on the High priest from leaving the sanctuary for the purpose of attending the burial of even the closest of family members (including his parents) as he would be unable to purify himself so completely as to avoid the risk of defiling the Holy of Holies. Some Chasidic masters, however, reflected in this verse their preoccupation with the need to live in the everyday world while serving God. In his book Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table, Rabbi Arthur Green et al* cite the Ba’al Shem Tov who says that this verse is alluded to in a passage in the Zohar, “Blessed are the righteous who know how to turn their desire upward toward the sublime King, rather than toward this world and its shameful vanity.” (2:134b). So the Ba’al Shem Tov says that a person’s thoughts should be directed to the upper world, to God. On the phrase, “From the holy place he shall not go forth…” he teaches that when speaking of worldly matters, a person should have in mind that she is walking downwards from the upper world, like a person leaving her home to go outside, but planning to return straight away. As she walks along she will be thinking, “When will I be returning home?” The Ba’al Shem Tov says, “Your thoughts should always be in the upper world; there is your essential home, cleaving to your Creator. This is the case even though you may be speaking of wordly matters. Reconnect yourself to that which is above as soon as you are able.”
Rabbi Green points out that BeShT “transferred” this passage concerning the High Priest “directly to the tsaddik or the devotee, one who makes it his life’s work never to depart from the inner Temple.”
However, in Rabbi Green’s discussion with his co-authors (Emor Round Two), they agree that this interpretation is relevant for everyone. They cite several Chasidic masters: Rav Yeevi suggests that when we need to “descend” to the mundane world, there are mitsvot to be performed among fellow people; the Or HaGanuz teaches that when we are “down here”, we bear in mind that “home” is elsewhere, “the land of the soul” is the true dwelling place; the Me’or Eynayim says that perpetual awareness of God can be cultivated.
These Rabbis are teaching that even if “home” is in the “other world” you have to leave that home sometimes and work in this world. Ebn Leader (one of the co-authors) suggests, “This is why the voice of the Me’or Eynayim is so important. Living in the world causes us to lose awareness. We forget our own potential for spiritual greatness. How do we restore it? By doing what a “priest” should do: loving people and bringing them to Torah! That will restore our faith in ourselves, in our own spiritual strength.”
Fittingly perhaps, Parashat Emor also contains the commandment regarding the counting of the Omer: And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering — the day after the Sabbath — you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete. (Vayikra 23:15)
In her commentary on the Parasha from 2012, http://parshathoughtsmore.blogspot.co.il/2012/05/parashat-emor-and-sefirat-haomer-on-in.html, Dr Rachel Anisfeld wonders why the Torah wasn’t given to the B’nei Yisrael as soon as they had escaped from Egypt. She says that it would seem to make sense: they were wandering and uncertain. They might have been reassured and strengthened by an immediate revelation. Why, she asks, do we have these 49 days to count, of Sefirat Ha’Omer, between Pesach and Shavuot? She says the destination was clear: God had told Moses at the burning bush at Mount Sinai that the people would return here to worship Him.
Dr Anisfeld says this teaches us that the Torah is not acquired easily. She cites the Netivot Shalom, who quotes the Mesilat Yesharim as saying that “tehilato be’hishtadlut vesofo bematanah – its beginning is through struggle and its end is a gift.” Dr Anisfeld says, “First a person has to work hard on her own, put some effort in; she can’t make it all the way on her own; the end result is a gift from above, but the gift only comes to one who has struggled. Enlightenment, or revelation, as the saying goes, only comes to the prepared mind, to the prepared soul.”
She also cites the Kedushat Levi who teaches us that on Pesach we receive the first experience of revelation and “an awakening from above”, and then we have the period of Sefirat Ha’Omer, of counting the Omer to continue that “awakening from below”. We are commanded, “Usefartaem lachem – count for yourselves” to teach us, Dr Anisfeld says, “You have to do it yourselves, out of your own volition and initiative.”
She adds that it is not by chance that we have this interim period between Pesach and Shavuot, during which we are mandated to find our way from one to the other. She says, “I think that most of us lead most of our lives precisely in this Sefirah state. We have some vague memory of a past revelation buried inside us, and we can occasionally catch glimpses of a revelation in front of us as well. The daily work is in this middle period of the Sefirah, in our own struggle to find direction, to be able to see Mount Sinai in the distance, and to feel its gravitational pull. The Hasidic commentaries understand sefirah as coming from sappir, or sapphire, referring to a clarity or brightness. The point of this time-period is to create within oneself a clarity of vision, a sense of purpose.”
Dr Anisfeld concludes, “Like the Israelites in the desert, we are all sometimes wanderers, winding our way through life, lost and directionless. Sefirat HaOmer is a way of asserting that our lives are colored by revelation on all sides of us, so that our current state looks backward and forward and is part of some chain. We count each day to remind ourselves of these connections, to help us feel, despite our existential bewilderment, that we are grounded, that we can see the revelation just over the horizon, and that each step is part of a path forward, given a sense of direction by its surrounding poles of clarity.”
*Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings from around the Maggid’s Table by Rabbi Arthur Green with Ebn Leader, Ariel Evan Mayse and Or N. Rose.