The quiet work of spiritual uplift

Rabbi Scott Shafrin

By Rabbi Scott Shafrin

D’var Torah:  Parashat EMOR

Adonai said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall become ritually impure for any [dead] person among their kin, except for the relatives that are closest to them: their mother, their father, their son, their daughter, and their sibling (Leviticus 21:1-2).

It is exceedingly difficult, as human beings who are built to be relational, to distance ourselves from the very people, rituals, and activities that are calling us to connect with one another. At the start of this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Emor, we are given an almost eerie look into our lives amid the current pandemic from thousands of years ago in the form of instructions given to the kohanim, the senior spiritual leaders and priests of ancient Israel. 

The kohanim are instructed not to come in contact with a dead body, with the exception of their closest relatives. Practically, this means that they must distance themselves from participating fully in funeral rites and end of life rituals, some of the most emotionally salient and helpful practices our tradition has to offer to those in grief and in pain. It sounds odd, almost cruel, to prohibit these leaders from taking part fully in these rituals, especially in moments when they are the most necessary for their own spiritual health, and as a forum for the priest to provide spiritual healing to others.

Rabbi Yitzhak, the great Talmudic sage, comments on the repeated use of the verb amar, which appears three times in this verse. He explains this repetition by saying that the priests are not only conductors of sacred experiences, but are rather themselves made sacred in three ways: All people are holy, being made in the Divine image; Israel is holy, having entered a covenant with God; and the  kohanim have been selected to lead the Jewish People’s sacred ritual life. 

The Hebrew word for sacred or holy, kadosh, literally means “separate.” In beginning this section of Torah, which outlines the ways in which the priests were separate from the rest of the Jewish People, Rabbi Yitzhak reemphasizes the fact that all important and sacred tasks are accomplished through separating from the norm, from what we are used to.

Sacred tasks are not easy. It is not easy to set aside time for Shabbat, to plan special holiday gatherings or to bring together loved ones for a life-cycle event, but at the same time, the meaningful rewards of doing so are bountiful. When we create separation, we allow for something more precious to emerge than we could find in our day to day comings and goings.

And that is still true now. The separations we are all dealing with are complicated, painful, messy, stressful and often discouraging. But we continue to distance ourselves from others because to flout these restrictions would be worse for our society, and possibly for ourselves, than trying to separate ourselves and re-create our lives within their constraints. For us, the possibility of contracting or spreading COVID-19 is far worse than the pain we must shoulder in the meantime. 

Just as the priests of ancient Israel had to be careful to maintain their own spiritual and emotional health through separation, so, too, do each of us. We are each spiritual leaders for the people close to us, setting an example, teaching through our very being, and we are members of Am Yisrael, looking outward for inspiration and nourishment for the soul. 

When we see things that deaden us spiritually, it is easy to pass on that soullessness; when we lead and participate with others, engaging in meaningful communication, we exude the very enlivened spirit that can spread like a fire into the souls of every person we touch in our lives, and negate the spread of emotional malaise, emptiness and spiritual boredom.

I know it is hard. I know that trying to work, to connect, even to see the light at the end of the tunnel can be a challenge. But there is light and life, meaning and magic, in our connections with each other and in the way can lift ourselves and others out of the darkness.  

So please, stay safe and healthy, and continue bringing others (virtually) along with you as we travel together from darkness to light.

Scott Shafrin is associate rabbi at Kol Rinah. He is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.