The first part of the parasha is about the Priests; what they can and can’t do, what they can and can’t eat, who they can and can’t marry, etc. Being a Priest involved one’s entire being, governing every aspect of life. Their lives must be holy, and in Hebrew, that means “kadosh”, or “separate.” Their holy lives created distinction, order, and purpose. “The priest who is exalted above his fellows…” (Lev 21:10). This man (and it was always a man) is literally in a class by himself, along with the other Priests. “For they are holy to their God, and you must treat them as holy, since they offer the food of your God; they shall be holy to you for I Adonai who sanctify you am holy.” Lev 21:6-8
So God has set these people aside within the community. They are “kadosh”, they are separate. But what about the rest of the community? They are holy, too, because God is holy, but they’re not priests. How do they show their holiness, their separateness?
“Adonai spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: These are My fixed times, the fixed times of Adonai, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” (Lev 23:1-2)
The rest of us non-Priests get holy time. Most of the rest of Emor is about the calendar. We learn about the Jewish festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and of course, Shabbat. The text asks us to look at questions like, “What is rest?” “What is complete rest?” “What is work?” These are the ways we become even more holy than normal, the way we can approach the uniqueness of even the Priests. They are subject to the holy times in the same way the rest of the Israelites are.
We can take holy time wherever we go. Those Priests need a Tabernacle, a Mishkan, to do their Priest-things, but all the Israelites can be holy anywhere. We make compartments of time. We infuse time, that elusive commodity, with Godliness…with God. It’s something we have in common. I always used to marvel at the rituals of the calendar, feeling the profound sense of connection, as people all over the world and all throughout time that are/were doing the same thing. My Shabbat practice may look different from yours, but whatever it is, we’re doing it on Friday nights, not Tuesday. My Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur practice may look different from yours, but this whole personal assessment of our lives is pretty much taking place around the Jewish world at the same time, and has been since, well…since Leviticus.
There are many balancing acts in Jewish life and thought. We balance the “Creator God” with the “Israelite God”. We balance our awareness of the individual and the community. And in Emor, we see the balance in holiness of people and time. Torah continues to teach us how to find that balance, enhancing our individual lives and our community.