What are the boundaries in a world where everything is open, permissible, and even acceptable? Where are they when we are under a constant barrage of information and input and words seem to no longer carry the weight of their implications? These questions, which have been on my mind lately, make this week’s Torah portion feel particularly foreign.
Emor is about boundaries, about distinguishing between life and death, sanctity and commonality, acceptable and not. Judaism’s effort as a spiritual tradition has been to turn the common into the holy and to connect moments—a day of rest, the passing of seasons, loss and new life—to the complicated and sometime inexplicable wonder that is the human condition. Another way to describe this is to say that it is about drawing distinctions and marking boundaries.
And yet, toward the end of the reading, after delineating various limitations and prescriptions, Moses is instructed again of the Eternal Lamp of the Tabernacle. The lamp, fueled by shemen zayit, zach katit, the clear, illuminating oil made from hand-crushed olives, must burn constantly. And because the required oil was difficult to obtain—each olive had to be gently squeezed for its initial, pure, clear drop—and because all of Israel was obligated provide their share, the task had to be shared by everyone. It was, in its own way, boundaryless, and thus it connected each to the other, and the resultant flame a focal point and a demonstration of our shared humanity and our connection to all of creation. Oneness and distinction. Separation and unity.
Yesterday evening, we learned of the tragedy that took place in Israel during a celebration of Lag Ba’Omer. Dozens were left dead and injured. In India, the pandemic is reaching a critical level. On this Shabbat, let us remember that, though we are separated by distance and borders, we are connected through empathy and the possibility of action.