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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת אמור, תש״פ

Parshat Emor, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, May 9th, 2020

Hukim u'Mishpatim - Laws of Ritual and Compassion

For those who have been learning with me on Wednesday nights and Sunday mornings, we have been studying a lot of what are traditionally called hukim, ritual laws and practices. On Wednesday nights, we’ve learned about how and why to keep kosher, celebrate Jewish holidays, and use ritual objects. On Sunday mornings, we’ve learned how and why to pray with our traditional liturgy. Our parashah this week, Emor, introduces a series of Jewish holidays, instructing the priests to make certain sacrifices and the people Israel to adopt certain practices. Even though we can spend years studying the hukim present in our Torah, even though we can spend weeks on a broad overview of Jewish ritual tradition, and even though we can spend our entire lives praying multiple times a day, we know that Judaism does not center on the ritual. Jewish ritual actions, the hukim so readily present in our Torah and tradition, exist for the purpose of encouraging us towards the mishpatim, our everyday actions of justice and compassion.

In several places throughout Rabbinic text, Rabbi Akiva, one who is deeply steeped in discussions about hukim, confidently states, V’ahavta l’reiakhah kamokhah. Zeh klal gadol baTorah. - “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. This is the great idea of the Torah.” For Rabbi Akiva, the whole point of the seemingly endless ritual commands of the Torah is to train ourselves to love each person we meet as one of our own. In last week’s parashah, we saw an enormous list of commandments focused towards the social and ethical, towards that ideal of loving the other. Now, in Parashat Emor, some of those mishpatim are repeated and expanded upon. This week, we are introduced to the idea of an eye for an eye, building on last week’s idea that every single person deserves equal recognition in the eyes of the law. Our love of the other expands beyond the human this week, as we are told to respect our animals by not mutilating them needlessly and by not eating a mother animal and her calf on the same day. This week, we are told once more to leave the corners of our fields for the poor and the widow, making sure that everyone who lives among us has the opportunity to eat their fill. Our Midrash states that the one who gives that produce to those who are in need has acted just as if he entered the Holy Temple and made a sacrifice within. However, even though what God truly wants may simply be societies and individual relationships that embrace compassion and justice, with its ritual commandments, the Torah acknowledges that we need prescribed meditations and practices to get us there.

We need our hukim to get to our mishpatim. When we keep kosher and say blessings before and after we eat, we think about where our food comes from; we put the land and the animals and the workers who toil in the forefront of our thoughts, encouraging us to act for their benefit. When we take off twenty-five hours for Shabbat, we develop a gratitude for being able to put that time aside - we are pushed to think about those who financially could not take that time off. Passover reminds us of our freedom and of the lack of freedom elsewhere in our world, the wobbly nature of Sukkot reminds us of the constant presence of homelessness around us, and Hanukkah reminds us of whatever present darkness might need an infusion of light. And whether we practice in the comfort of our own homes or in the presence of family or community, we are aware that we complete these practices at the same time that so many others around the world are doing the same. We cannot embrace Jewish practice without thinking about our connection to our neighbors, near and far, Jewish and not, and our potential to lift those neighbors up.

In the past few weeks, in classes, services, and ISJL events, I’ve been heartened by the incredible number of our community members engaging in their Judaism on a daily basis. I’ve been astounded by our community members’ contributions to the whole of Shreveport. Between donations to the city, phone calls to those living alone, and masks sewn for medical professionals, we are a group of people who actively demonstrate that love of the other as ourselves. In our community, the interplay between hukim and mishpatim seems to be readily present, and I hope that we can hold onto this moment as an example of that interplay. In time to come, when we need inspiration for how to improve ourselves or the world around us, let us turn to the fixed nature of our Jewish tradition. When we find ourselves bogged down in tradition without apparent meaning, let us turn to the community formed by our tradition, to the people on this screen. Take wisdom from their family traditions around lighting Shabbat candles; take inspiration from the specific ways they are using their Jewish values to step forward to benefit the hungry or change city policy. Whether in classes, services, or a phone call to catch up, let us study and experience our ritual tradition together for the sake of developing our ideals and ideas. Shabbat Shalom.