Commentary on Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23)
Throughout the year our tradition provides us the opportunity to remember parents, children, friends and relatives who are no longer among the living. The Yizkor service, occurring four times a year and most recently observed at the end of Passover, is undoubtedly one of the most poignant and personal moments of our liturgical calendar. Our hearts open to recall the bonds of love that remain forever and our memories bring a flood of emotion. The words of the Yizkor prayer, however, are carefully selected and gently point us to honoring our memories with a pledge for tzedakah in the name of those whom we recall.
This week in Parshat Emor we read the very familiar Leviticus 22:31: “And you shall keep the commandments and do them; I am the Lord.” Now one might argue that “keeping (u’shmartem)” and “doing (v’asitem)” are simply redundant terms that are meant to emphasize the specific mitzvot of this chapter of Leviticus. I’d like to suggest, however, that this dual idea of “keeping” and “doing” is essential to understanding our tradition.
A Jewish life is infused with a sense of mitzvot or commandment. From the most mundane moments to the most sublime, we are given boundaries, blessings and instructions for fulfilling the traditional 613 mitzvot that occupy every facet of our lives. We “keep” these commandments throughout the day – sometimes with great intention and sometimes simply automatically without much consciousness. Often we structure our lives so it is easy to drop a coin into the tzedakah box without thinking or even daven (pray) without pausing to consider the meaning and richness of the words we’ve uttered hundreds of times. The “keeping” of the commandments can be relatively easy. But the “doing” is simply a different matter.
I would submit that our commandments are meant to inspire us to action. They should lead us to “doing” good in our lives and in the world. It is for that reason that our verse in Leviticus urges us to “keep” and then to “do.” It is simply not enough to fulfill the letter of the law (“keeping” the commandments) if we are not prepared to go beyond (i.e., “doing” them). We are urged through each and every commandment to ultimately go out into the world and make a difference: to bring comfort; to bring peace; to inspire justice and much more. This verse encapsulates our Jewish mission and urges us from the comfort of our homes into the world that desperately needs our attention.
The Yizkor prayer and its pledge for tzedakah is meant to move us from memory to action; from grief to deeds of charity; from our own torn hearts to rebuilding lives that need our help and attention. We do not simply “stand and recall” but rather we stand and pledge to “do.”
Finally, the Torah portion this week concludes with a review of observances that are commanded throughout the year. We build a religious “structure” in time out of the seasons and days of our life. This “structure” consists of the holidays, observances and special occasions that form the backbone of the Jewish calendar. Winter, spring, summer and fall are all opportunities for observance. And if, as I suggest, our observance propels us to action in the world then we are never free — for even one day — to forget our obligation to fulfill our holy mission of action and justice.
Rabbi David Kaiman is the rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Gainesville, Florida. Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he is active in local interfaith and community projects and lately has been most proud of his new role as a grandfather.