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Sermon: Parshat Emor, 5/8/20

05/13/2020 11:11:32 AM


Rabbi Charlie

Sometimes we look at the Torah with great pride at the wisdom we find there. Sometimes we are dismayed. And sometimes we look at the Torah and struggle to understand how it connects to anything in our lives today.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Emor, includes guidelines for priests, guidelines for sacrifices, and our calendar year. Much of the calendar of holy days that the Torah spells out is very familiar to us today. The idea that we’re not able to offer an animal that has a blemish or a defect might not be as familiar.

S’forno explains that it’s not acceptable to offer God a blemished animal because God would be dismayed. Some would argue that our tradition wants us to only offer the best. Others would say that just as there are a limited number of animals that are offered – I’m sorry to say that you couldn’t offer up a llama or a zebra, although I know some of you would love that – in the same way, there are limits placed on the quality of the animal for similar reasons.

Regardless, when we’re not offering up animals anymore – what does that mean for us? I think that our rabbis look back at the time of animal sacrifice and romanticize it. They make a connection between perfect sacrifices and the holiness of those who came before us. I think that makes sense. There are many of us who look up to past generations with great appreciation for what they had to overcome – for their strength and resilience. I know many of us are leaning on the inspiration they provide during our current situation.

At the same time, there’s also an understanding that transitions take place – even before the Rabbis come along. In Psalm 51:17-19 begins with some familiar words:

אֲ֭דֹנָי שְׂפָתַ֣י תִּפְתָּ֑ח וּ֝פִ֗י יַגִּ֥יד תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ׃

O Lord, open my lips, and let my mouth declare Your praise.

It continues:

You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings;

True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit; God, You will not despise a broken and crushed heart.

These verses are referenced often in Jewish tradition. They pave the way for prayer instead of sacrifice and teach us how to pray. When it comes to prayer, God isn’t looking for perfection. What are we supposed to offer? Our “Lev Nishbar”, our broken heart.

We’re supposed to offer our pain and our struggles, our humility and our sincerity. We’re supposed to offer the truth of our lives – that which we most need to express. We’re supposed to offer ourselves, our triumphs and our struggles in all our brokenness.

This idea is reinforced in Jewish philosophical and spiritual works and this idea is reinforced in Jewish stories. There’s the young child who desperately wants to participate in the service, but doesn’t know how to read and doesn’t know the words to say. She has so much to express that she gets out her whistle in the middle of Yom Kippur services and blows one loud note. The whole congregation stops and is about to start yelling, when the rabbi explains that the child’s one broken note was filled with such longing and appreciation and hope that it elevated the entire community’s prayers.

And there’s another story of the man who skips Yom Kippur services altogether. Afterwards Rabbi Levi Yitzchak goes to check on him to make sure he’s ok. The man is doing fine, but explains to the rabbi that there’s so much wrong with the world that a day of prayer didn’t make sense. His prayer to God was a deal – that if God forgave him for his minor discretions then he would forgive God for all the problems and suffering. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak felt that such a deal could have helped to redeem not only the man, but the whole world.

These are not stories of perfect prayer. We don’t have to offer an unblemished animal anymore. It’s not about saying the right words or bowing at the right place. It’s about finding hope in spite of our limitations. It’s about reaching out in spite of our frustrations. And it’s about honesty – standing before ourselves and before God, in all of our varied understandings – and making an imperfect, broken offering. Right now, that’s the prayer that we all can try to express. It’s certainly the prayer that God needs to hear.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mon, January 25 2021 12 Sh'vat 5781