Parashat Emor: Sanctifying God’s Name
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” You might remember that quote from the 90’s, when it was the catchphrase of the character Stuart Smalley, played on Saturday Night Live by Al Franken, before he got into politics (and then out of politics).
Stuart Smalley was a motivational speaker, who hosted a show called “Daily Affirmations with Stuart Smalley.” The character and his affirmations, in which he would earnestly declare that he was good enough just the way he was, captured the zeitgeist of the 1990s, when pop psychology and self-empowerment gurus from Tony Robbins to Oprah encouraged us to believe that we could achieve whatever we set our minds to.
The reason that Stuart Smalley struck a comic chord was that there were plenty of people who did use these kinds of affirmations in order to psych themselves up for the challenges that life presented. Affirmations are still around, of course, although these days people who want to recite daily affirmations are more likely to do so with the help of a meditation app than a self-help book or a daytime TV show.
And scientists agree that verbal affirmations can be effective. An article published in the Washington Post last spring shares that researchers have found that reciting affirmations can lower your stress levels and help you get in touch with your personal goals.
However, these scientists say that there’s a trick to doing affirmations. The article quotes David Cresswell, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
Cresswell says that effective affirmation isn’t about thinking “I want to pump myself up and find ways to say how much I like myself – It’s more about identifying, in really concrete ways, the kinds of things about you that you really value.”
Verbalizing our core values isn’t a new concept to us Jews.
We verbalize everything all the time. Not only are we a people that likes to kibbitz, and schmooze, and gab – but our whole religious life is based around saying things out loud. We say our prayers out loud, we read from the Torah and Haftarah – we take everything that’s important to us – our history, our hopes for the future – and we verbalize it.
So how did we become a people that likes to verbalize everything that’s central to our religious lives?
One clue is found in the Torah reading for today, Parashat Emor. As Justin so eloquently told us in his D’var Torah, this parasha contains a list of the holidays that God commanded the Jewish people to keep – all of which we still observe today.
In the Torah, God uses a very specific phrase to describe what these holidays are and how we are supposed to relate to them.
God tells Moshe,
“Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My sacred times, the
sacred times of Adonai, which you shall proclaim as holy occasions.”
God is talking about the festivals – mo’adim – but God also calls them mikra’ei kodesh. This phrase is translated in our Chumash as “sacred times,” but it actually has a more specific meaning than that.
The word mikra’ei comes from the Hebrew root k-r-a, meaning “to call” or “to proclaim.” So apparently, these aren’t just holidays, they’re days that the Israelite people are supposed to proclaim as holy.
In fact, in our verse, God specifies that the people should tik’r’u otam – that the people have to proclaim, or call out, these holy times.
So – it seems like it’s really crucial here for the Israelites not just to observe these holidays, but to announce them. But why would that be so important to God? Isn’t it enough that God announced them, and now we just have to celebrate them?
Why would it be important for the Israelites, mere mortals, to verify that these are indeed holidays?
The medieval sage Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno comments on this text. Sforno teaches that God is really saying: “These are My holidays – these are the holidays that I desire. It is certain that if you do not call them holy times, and they are instead mundane times and you spend them busying yourselves only with mundane pursuits and human pleasures, they will not be My holidays.”
In other words, what God is suggesting is that if we do not call these times holy (and treat them as holy), then they will not be holy, at least not in any way that God considers meaningful and acceptable.
Although God intends for us to enjoy sacred times, God can only go so far in ensuring that these times are indeed sacred.
God may proclaim that Friday night and Saturday are Shabbat – but, if Jews do not observe Shabbat, if we treat those times just like the other days of the week, then, in effect, those times are not Shabbat – they’re just Friday night and Saturday.
This idea seems to give us mere mortals a whole lot of theological power. Is it really up to us to decide whether or not the holidays are truly the holidays?
Although it might seem audacious, this teaching is actually in line with a timeless thread of Jewish theology, which sees human beings as God’s partners in perfecting the world and in carrying out God’s will.
That idea is expressed in another verse from our parasha. God tells the people that they must observe God’s commandments, and then adds,
“Do not profane My holy name, and I will be sanctified in the midst of the people Israel.”
God says v’nikdashti – “and I will be holy” – from the root k-d-sh. In other words, if we don’t profane God’s name, then God will be holy. If we treat God as holy, then God will be holy.
Again, it’s a very audacious thing to say. How could we sanctify or profane God? How could we make God holy or not holy? Isn’t God beyond our realm of influence?
I think that the idea here is similar to the idea behind that verse about the holidays. Yes, God is always holy in some cosmic Divine sense, whether we recognize God’s majesty or not.
But if we – here on earth – don’t attest to God’s holiness, if we don’t say that God is holy, don’t act like God is holy – then it’s as if God is not holy in our human world.
It’s kind of like how if we don’t make the holidays special, then – for all intents and purposes – they’re not special.
In Judaism, when we do something that reflects upon our people and our religion in a positive light, it’s called a kiddush Hashem – a sanctification of God’s name. What we do and what we say as human beings can, in effect, help make God holy and give honor to God’s name.
This is one of the most difficult concepts in Judaism – that God needs us to be God’s partners in establishing and perpetuating God’s holiness.
For me, that concept is one that challenges me – but that also gives me great comfort, especially at times like these, when our community has faced a terrible loss.
I’m sure that most, if not all of you, heard about the horrific tragedy that took place this past Wednesday night – a drunk driver, going the wrong way down a street in Jericho,
crashed into a car carrying four teenagers. Two of the young men – fourteen-year-olds from right here in Roslyn – were killed.
And for the past three days, our town, our community, has been wracked by grief. Parents have struggled to talk with their children about the tragedy. Community members have been talking to each other online, and in the supermarket, and here in synagogue, trying to find the words to express our sorrow and to comfort each other.
For the past three days, we have been talking about this tragedy, and we need to talk about it today, too – even though it’s Shabbat, even though we’re celebrating a simcha, a happy occasion – because, as I pointed out before, we Jews talk about things. That’s what we do and how we make sense of the world.
I am not going to attempt to address the question of why – why this could have happened – if there even is a why. What I do want to say as we reflect on Parashat Emor is that the idea of proclaiming God’s holiness in the world and the idea of how we respond to unspeakable tragedy – these two ideas are intertwined.
When people ask me as a rabbi to try to explain senseless tragedy, I always tell them honestly that I don’t have answers. None of us have answers. What I do have, what we all have, are responses.
We have ways that we can respond to these situations that bring comfort to the bereaved and honor to God.
When we seek justice for victims, when we support those who are suffering, we are helping God complete God’s tasks in making the world a just and caring place. When we put goodness into the world to counteract all the pain that life can throw at us, our actions and our words help make God’s name holy.
When we proclaim our holidays and our sacred occasions, we help bring meaning and deep significance to what would otherwise be ordinary time.
And when we proclaim that today is a simcha, when we celebrate Shabbat together and rejoice at the Bar Mitzvah of a wonderful young man, we act as God’s partners in creating a world where we can know joy as well as sorrow – a world in which the joys that we experience can give us strength to face challenging times.
All of these things that we can say and do are the ways in which we can respond to everything that life gives us – the good and the bad.
These are not answers – they’re responses. Perhaps you could say that they’re affirmations.
Maybe these are the kinds of affirmations that we really need as we walk through life.
Maybe what we really need is not affirmations about being successful or liking ourselves – maybe what we need to be putting out into the world are affirmations that truly give meaning to our lives.
We need to affirm, every day, that God is holy. We need to affirm, every day, that there is goodness in the world. We need to affirm, every day, that when times are hard, we are here to help.
When we affirm these things, we help to create reality, just as the Torah suggests. We help to create a world in which every individual, every family, can feel the reality of God’s love and support.
As we say in Judaism – “from our lips to God’s ears.” May we have the courage to create a world of justice, a world of comfort, a world of peace.