Emor: Temporal Freedom

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    • Tzvi Chulsky 1 month ago

      Last week’s parashah told all of Israel how to be holy; this is the Torah of Moshe. This week’s parashah, directed at the kohanim in particular, is the Torah of Aharon. As usual, Moshe’s parashah comes first, and the laws from Aharon’s parashah are given through Moshe, showing the primacy of Moshe’s approach—refining oneself is more important than ritual (indeed, the purpose of the ritual is to assist in self-refinement), and communication with God is the ultimate goal; kaparah, on which so much of the service is focused, it only to assist the former.

      After discussing the kohanim and sacrifices, our parashah moves on to festivals. Sifre on Devarim 16:1 notes that the festivals are discussed in Vayikra, Bamidbar and Devarim in different ways[1]. Bamidbar discusses the korbanot for the festivals—this is why our mussaf on festivals includes passages from Bamidbar—and Devarim discusses the communal duty of teaching Torah on the festivals. In Vayikra, in our parashah, the discussion is about their order.

      Why are the korbanot not discussed in Vayikra? It does, after all, seem to be the appropriate place. And there are different ways to answer that. One answer is given by Rav S.R. Hirsch as follows:

      To appreciate the full significance of the festival offerings, the nation must first learn about itself and its own relation to its great mission—self-knowledge that it can attain only on the basis of its experiences while wandering in the wilderness.

      Another answer involves what we have seen earlier—that tum’ah and tahara are all about “un-freedom” and freedom, and thus the book of Vayikra is, in a sense, a book about freedom. What does this have to do with the festivals and their timing? As Rav Hirsch writes elsewhere:

      A person’s freedom is marked by his right to use his time as he sees fit. One who can call his time his own is truly free. One whose time is controlled by another is his slave. In Egypt, we could not call even a minute our own; the lack of this right to use our time for our own purposes marked us as slaves even at the moment of our deliverance, and made the matzah the symbol of our bondage.

      Our time is in God’s hand. He removes certain days and weeks from the annual cycle, and dictates to us how we are to act during those times. He thereby expresses His lordship over us. That we place our time at His disposal is the surest sign that we have ceased being servants of men, and have become servants of God. This servitude has made us forever free.

      “So what?” one may ask. What is the difference, if we go from one slavery to another? Yes, if we are slaves to God, then man has no control over us; he can berate and threaten, but if our faith dictates our actions, allowing us to be comfortable with the decision to accept death under certain circumstances, man has no real power over us, and cannot organize us for his purposes. But this week’s parashah contains another gem about what it is like to be slaves of God, and it comes in a verse[2] with memorably strange wording: מועדי ה’ אשר-תקראו אתם מקראי קדש אלה הם מועדי—“God’s appointed times for meeting that you shall proclaim as convocations to the Temple—they are My appointed times for meeting.”

      This seems very strangely, almost nonsensically repetitive at first glance, rambling with no informational content. But Rav Hirsch points out that it is precisely the מועדים that we determine that are God’s מועדים. As it was the Sanhedrin, who, with the help of witnesses, would declare a new month; as it was the Sanhedrin who would determine leap years[3]; one might think that the Jews played a dangerous game, possibly causing festivals to fall on the wrong day. And that fear is something that this verse declares to be nonsensical—for God Himself says: the מועדים that you declare shall be my מועדים.

      In other words, God treats us with respect. He gives us freedom. And when it comes to festivals, God does not unilaterally tell us when they will be; the decision must be arrived at mutually.

      Over 1,500 years ago, Hillel the Younger created the current calendar we use, with seven leap years every 19 years, and with months set at certain lengths. This calendar has proven impressively accurate, and has served us well for millennia in galut, with no Sanhedrin. It also made the calendar predictable, obviating the need for the two-day yom tov in galut even before communication speeds improved. The two day yom tov was kept to remind us of the “mutual” calendar and maintain a differentiation between Israel and galut; every time we celebrate two days of yom tov, it would make sense to yearn to be in Israel, where it would be only one day, and to yearn to get our collaborative calendar back.

      So God respects us and our time; that is worth being glad of. But do we respect our own time? How many of us languish in full-time jobs, outsourcing the education of our children, sacrificing time with our spouse, devoting our entire youth and middle age to a daily grind so that we can save up for retirement? Do we plan to live only when we are elderly?

      For many people, this has not felt like a choice: “the grind” is the only alternative to homelessness and starvation that they know. In our career-oriented society, too many people have been willing to sacrifice their lives for their employers, and some of those people would compete with us in our sectors. Employers could afford to hold out for those employees who would dedicate their entire lives to their work. The only alternative seemed to be to start one’s own business, and many who did succumbed to the culture just as much that way, in fact devoting even more of their lives to their businesses than a full-time job would have demanded.

      Perhaps this enslavement was one reason that we were sent the pandemic of 2020. Businesses that had demanded their employees’ presence and time found that they could save big, and increase their margins sometimes dramatically, by offloading their expensive downtown office spaces and letting employees work from home. Employees quickly realized that it would now pay to be efficient—get the same amount of work done in less time, and the employer does not need to know (and really, there is no reason why the employer should care). Employees also quickly realized that working from home actually means working from wherever they want to be at the moment. Combine that with the elimination of the commute, and many got their lives back.

      As the pandemic winds down, many employers are regressing, demanding that employees show up in person again. In some sectors, this makes sense; in others, it is likely a temporary trend. Employees have discovered the freedom of remote work, and many are choosing to quit and look for new remote jobs rather than return to showing up in person. We hope that this trend persists, for people with more freedom are, according to our understanding of the Torah, literally more alive. We hope primarily to see people obtain freedom; but of course, once they do, we hope they choose to use this freedom to attain worthy goals in their lives.

      Near the end of the book of Dvarim[4], Moshe says of God כי הוא חייך וארך ימיך—“because He is your life and the length of your days.” This has been incorporated into our maariv service, though there, we refer to the Torah and laws that way rather than to God Himself. Why the difference, and why such a repetitive phrase? The length of our life is largely out of our control, but the length of our days is not. A richer, more full day is longer. God shows us how to live a life of long days, and the way He does it is through Torah and mitzvot. The מועדים, in relation to our discussion, serve as a small example, pushing us to have priorities above work and career.

      May we use our freedom to have long, productive days in which we do great things.

      [1] It is notable, though not mentioned in Sifre, that Shmot also has a discussion of the festivals, though not all of them are mentioned there.
      [2] Vayikra 23:2
      [3] As the news of what had been determined by the Sanhedrin could not reach Jews outside of Israel in a timely fashion, a yom tov had to be two days in galut, to make sure that the correct one was observed.
      [4] 30:20

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