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April 23, 2013 By:
Sacred Calendar: A Map for Living in Holy Time
Emor contains two sets of instructions. The first is for the priests, outlining what they need to do to offer sacrifices and stay in an undefiled state. The second instructions are for the Israelite people. They are instructions about how to live in the sacred time of the festivals and holidays of the year.
The instructions begin with Shabbat, the weekly rhythm of rest. They continue with instructions for Passover, counting the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. This is one of the most complete liturgical calendars offered in the Torah.
Placing these instructions for the rhythm of yearly festivals and sacred occasions side by side with the priestly instructions for being in a state of holiness helps us understand the import of these holidays. It makes sense that priestly and Israelite instructions come together, since so many festivals involve bringing offerings and sacrifices to the Temple.
However, they tell us something else about the festivals by being side by side. The observance of these sacred occasions is the people’s way of being holy. The priests have certain personal attributes they must maintain to worship God in a proper way. For the rest of Israel, the way that they stay in this state of being able to approach God is through observing the sacred year.
For us today, the sacred calendar remains a map for how to live in holy time. Each holiday brings its own character, leading us through a cycle of reflection, atonement, celebration and revelation. The holidays align with the agricultural seasons to make us more conscious of the cycles of the earth and how we depend on them for food. They punctuate the weekly rest and celebration that is offered by Shabbat, giving us occasions that take us out of our regular routine and help us draw closer to holiness.
The portion includes the liturgical moment that we are in right now: the period of counting of the Omer, between Passover and Shavuot.
Counting the Omer is a practice of anticipation. We stand after the evening prayer and simply count the day of the Omer we have reached. Simple, yet it can be hard to remember to do. It requires mindfulness and presence. This helps us recognize that while we look forward into the future to the exciting moment of revelation of Torah, we must also maintain our attention on the present moment, day by day, that is needed to reach this revelation. Attention to the present and the future are always in tension with each other, competing in our lives, and the Omer practice makes this tension explicit.
Watching the spring unfold is also a practice of presence and anticipation. As we bend close to the tree branch to see each leaf unfurl, we are slowing down to focus on a singular moment in time. We are simultaneously in the present moment and feeling the promise of spring in which the world changes and blooms before our eyes. So it is with this season of the Omer and revelation. We are slowly readying ourselves to receive the Torah on Shavuot while grounding ourselves in the present moment that we build through counting the Omer.
This is just one segment of our sacred year that we are in now. May the map it creates for the whole year help guide us on our journeys.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and the Hillel adviser at Ursinus College. Email her at: firstname.lastname@example.org.