Each year, this week’s Torah portion (Emor) reminds me of my own “coming of age” Bat Mitzvah – at age 36, exactly 36 years ago. I was so nervous that day, I couldn’t even manage a load of laundry in the washing machine.
I imagined that if I couldn’t read from Torah exactly correctly, I’d be devastated. What if the letters swam before my eyes? What if I forgot the words or the ancient melody? I practiced for months, but was I ready? It was an odd sensation for me: I was a teacher and seasoned public speaker, so how could I be so nervous?
I was nervous, perhaps, because Torah’s power transcends reading from an ancient scroll. There is spiritual power in studying Torah beyond mental comprehension. I felt something – some energy, some divine force, God – pulling me to wake before dawn each day to study Torah and explore the richness of Jewish tradition.
Perhaps it’s like this: there are the words of Torah, and there’s divine energy that crystallizes wisdom into form. When we read Torah, we receive both words and the divine energy that creates form. Receiving this energy can be both awesome and enlivening.
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, is best known for laying out the Jewish holiday cycle – Shabbat, Passover, harvest holidays (Shavuot and Sukkot), Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The part I read at my adult bat mitzvah, however, was about how kohanim (priests) were to care for the ner tamid (eternal light) and menorahs in the original Tabernacle, and the shemen zayit zach (pure olive oil) that fueled their flame (Lev. 24:1-9). It was about the 12 loaves of challah placed on the Tabernacle’s altar table, with sweet smelling incense.
The ancient prescriptions merged in my mind with the now, with oil I put in a newly purchased menorah, loaves I challah I began to bake each week, and fragrant smell of spices I began to add to the conclusion of Shabbat.
In Lecha Dodi during Shabbat evening, we sing shamor v’zachor – “observe and remember.” Without observance, the mitzvot (commandments) become like freeze-dried coffee in the jar, without their full flavor and energy.
Emor gives us specific ways to connect with Divine energy, to connect with our Creator, to connect with the Mystery some call God. Then we too can become like the kohanim of old, bringing light into this world.