Torah Portion "Emor": Transforming & Preserving the Flow of Festivals

In this week’s Torah portion, called “Emor,” one of the main passages is a recitation (Leviticus 23) of the festivals and how to observe them  -- the biblical version of Seasons of Our Joy. It begins with Shabbat and then follows the seasons of the year, from Pesach (Passover) in “the first month of the year” until the day after the seven-day fall festival of Sukkot.

From our own  standpoint, there are several surprising aspects to the recitation. First of all, in the description of Pesach there is not a work about the great liberation from slavery to Pharaoh in Mitzrayyim, “Narrowdom.” 

In fact, we hear about two festivals – one on the fourteenth day of the first “renewing” of the year – that is, the spring new moon, what we might call the first lunar “moonth.” That is when there must be a “pesach” or Pass-over, Skip-over, skipping or stumbling offering to the Breath of Life.

The next day, the fifteenth  day, we celebrate a different festival, the Feast of Matzot or Unleavened Bread. Still no mention of the “fierce urgency of Now,” the reason we hear elsewhere for baking a bread for a band of runway slaves to carry into the wilderness as emergency food.

What is going on here?  In the beginning, “Pesach,” it seems, was the stumbling, staggering, skipping gait of a newborn lamb. The offering of a “pesach” newborn lamb, roasted in fire newly tamed, was a “pesach” offering to the Breath of Life. The offering of a spring lambing by the shepherds of the land. Some scholars think the shepherds may even have imitated the newborn lambs by doing a skipping, stumbling dance of joyful celebration of their own.

 And why matzot the next day, with a commitment to eat only matzot for seven days? A festival of farmers, when the early-fruitful barley was breaking ground and offering itself as the first food of the first farmers who could pound barley into a powder, add water but no spices and no yeast, and bake the flat bread with fire newly tamed.

Then where did the Pesach of liberation come from? There must have been some event of blazing heat in the life of the people to melt a shepherd’s festival of newborn lambs and a farmer’s festival of new-sprung barley into one, a festival of freedom. 

Transforming the stumbling pesach steps of a newborn lamb and the pesach skipping dance of shepherds into the Pesach of the Messenger of Death skipped over, passed over, the homes of Israelites. Only the homes where blood had rimmed the doorways to bring new birth as the bloody doorway of a womb brings a new birth.

Spring and new birth, when translated to a social system, means freedom –- the unexpected, a new shape of living.  It is no surprise that the whole lunar-solar Jewish calendar is based on the certainty that Pesach must come in the spring.

And the transformation of Pesach should teach us a truth about other old symbols and practices: When we live through earthquakes, we can transform the old without forgetting it.


There is one more astonishing fact about Emor’s recitation of the seasonal festivals. In Lev. 23: 22, there is a sudden departure from explaining holy-day observance to explaining how to treat the poor in time of harvest:

         You are not to finish-off the edge of your field when you harvest (it),

             the full-gleaning of your harvest you are not to glean; for the afflicted and

             for the sojourner you are to leave them, I am YHWH

             [the Breath of Life, Interbreathing Spirit of the world] your God!

 Then the text goes on to the blowing of the Shofar for Renewing of the moon of the seventh moonth – what we know as Rosh Hashanah.

Why this interruption in the flow of holy days?

I can only tell you how it makes me feel: That after the  Spring wheat harvest at Shavuot, there is a kind of plug that blocks the flow of abundance from Earth – UNLESS we pull that plug open by sharing the flow with the poor, who don’t own land. We need to pull that plug if we want to keep moving to the fall harvest.  If we stopped sharing our harvest with the poor, the rhythm and flow of the harvest itself would stop.  Another reminder from the Torah that the meaning of YHWH, Interbreathing, is that social justice and Earth’s abundance can never be severed.

Without sharing Earth's abundance, we would never get to the seventh month, the sabbatical month of four different festivals. A microcosm of the year and of our lives: birth at the New Moon; encounter with another Identity on Yom Kippur; fulfillment at the full moon of harvest; inwardness, seeming death and underground rebirth as the full fruit of Sukkot becomes the invisible seed of Sh’mini Atzeret, waiting for Spring to sprout again.

Blessings as we count the Omer of the Spring wheat harvest, relieving our anxiety and permitting celebrations as on the 33d day the wheat has grown enough to make clear the harvest will be plentiful.

That’s the deep, the sensible understanding that Rabbi Phyllis Ocean Berman brings to what to many seem the puzzling moment of Lag B’Omer. This week, Thursday night and Friday.

 With that note of joy and comfort, blessings of shalom, salaam, peace, paz, namaste! --- Arthur

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