How to Live a Holy Life for God...In Space and Time | Aleph Beta

Holiness In Space And Time

How To Bring Holiness Into Our Lives

Immanuel Shalev


We all strive to live a holy life for God, but how exactly are we meant to do that — especially when faced with the challenges of living a holy life in an unholy world? Where in the Bible can we find guidance for how to live a life of holiness? You probably wouldn't have thought of Parshat Emor, but yet...

Parshat Emor speaks a lot about holiness: holy people (i.e. Kohanim); holy objects in the Mishkan, and holy times of year (the festivals). But all of this holy talk can sometimes just gloss over us. We don’t have a Mishkan. And while we there are still Kohanim around, they don’t wear fancy clothes or perform spiritual acts on behalf of the nation like they once did. And as much as we may enjoy the holidays, it’s sometimes hard to feel that they actually enhance holiness in our lives. Sure, we get together with family and friends, eat special foods, we spend more time in shul and say special prayers. But what really makes life holy in our day and age? How can we encounter holiness when our lives are so far removed from the context that the Torah is speaking about?

In this video, Imu Shalev and David Block grapple with these very questions, and discover a powerfully relevant message right in the words of the Torah itself. Holiness may feel elusive to us today, but after watching this video, you may find that it’s much closer and more available than you think. The answers will illuminate a deep secret about our relationship with God, with practical significance for achieving holiness in our everyday lives.


Immanuel: Welcome to Parshat Emor. At the Parsha Experiment, a major part of our mission is to convince people that each week, the parsha is engaging, meaningful, and relevant to our lives. And this week, more than halfway into the Torah, after patiently waiting, we finally get to hear about the kohanim, the priests who did service in the Mishkan and about the vessels in the mishkan. Except...It's not the first time. It's not even the second time! This is the third time the Torah is talking to us about these subjects. We've already covered this stuff back in Terumah and Tetzaveh, not to mention their repetition in Vayakhel and Pekudei. Even if we are learning some new details, don't they belong back at the end of the book of Exodus?

David: And that's not the only strange thing about this parsha.

The laws in this week's parsha fit neatly into three sections. First, there are laws that pertain to Kohanim. Then, we hear a list of holidays like Shabbos, Yom Kippur, and Pesach. And in the final section, we are told details concerning the Menorah, and the Shulchan, the showbread table.

Now, let's play one of our favorite games here at Aleph Beta: "which one of these things is not like the other?"

What Connects Living a Holy Life, Laws and Holidays?

If you guessed holidays, then you're right...What are the laws of holidays doing sandwiched in between priests and the vessels of the mishkan? Wouldn't it make sense to finish talking about the mishkan and then move on to holidays?

Immanuel: The answer to all these questions will take us a step beyond the simple understanding of our parsha as just a list of laws concerning priests, holidays, and vessels, and it will help us understand a deep secret about our relationship with God, with practical significance in our everyday lives.

Join us this week as we explore Emor on the Parsha Experiment.

David: Hi, I'm David Block.

Immanuel: And I'm Imu Shalev.

David: And welcome to the Parsha Experiment.

So in order to explain why the laws of holidays seem to interrupt the laws of priests and vessels in the mishkan, let's pull back the zoom lens and see where we are in the book of Leviticus.

In Tazria, Metzora, and Acharei Mot, we discussed the laws of Tumah and Tahara, ritual impurity and purity. Last week, in Kedoshim, we transitioned to an even higher spiritual realm, that of Kedusha – holiness.

What Does the Bible Say About Living a Holy Life?

We found that kedusha is about creating a place for others. God is Kadosh because He is the source of all life, and created space for us to exist. We, in turn, are charged to build and protect the space of others by respecting their property and taking care of the poor. But we were also asked to build a space for God, the mishkan.

Immanuel: That's where Parshat Emor picks up. It tells of special laws concerning the Kohanim, people who are kadosh because they are dedicated to God's space. Israel needs to be careful about basic tumah and tahara laws before they enter the mishkan, but they need to visit the mishkan much less frequently than the Kohanim. The kohen who serves in the mishkan needs to be even more mindful of tumah and tahara, and about the recognition of God as source, when he is in the special place set aside for Him.

For example, one of the laws in Emor is that a Kohen is not allowed to come in contact with a dead person who was not an immediate member of his family, since that would make him tamei. Now, if a regular member of Israel loses a close friend or distant relative and wants to participate in the burial arrangements, he may. His exposure to death, and his mourning, causes him to become tamei: a temporary state while he is suffering loss. Our exposure to death is meant to remind us of God as the source of all life, but when one is mourning a loss, he cannot immediately achieve that kind of clarity. That's why he can't immediately enter the mishkan. But we are allowed to be human and we are given a waiting period, and tahara rituals, to help us re-enter God's place. But here's the difference – a regular member of Israel has the option to enter God's space, but a Kohen is part of God's space. Their perspective must always be aligned with God as life-giver.

David: But then, our parsha moves on to discuss...holidays. What could that have to do with kohanim, and holiness?

Holidays: A Moment of Holiness in Our Lives?

David: Well, let's give you a hint. Holidays. Holi-days. Holi...days. Holy days! Could holiness, or kedusha, have anything to do with the Biblical holidays?

Look at how the Torah introduces the holidays: "Moses, tell the people of Israel about these: מוֹעֲדֵי יְהוָה – the appointed times of God, אֲשֶׁר-תִּקְרְאוּ אֹתָם מִקְרָאֵי קֹדֶשׁ – which you should call "holy occasions." God actually tells us that we should define the festivals as holy. Why?

Immanuel: Well, let's try to apply our definition of kedusha: to make a place for the other. In this case, with the mo'adei Hashem – the festivals of God, that would mean that we're somehow making a place for God. How does that work?

The truth is, the idea of making a place for others can be expressed in different ways. Until now, we've mainly seen kedusha in space: making actual space for others. Respecting people's boundaries and property, creating a physical Mishkan for God. But there's another way to create a place for others: not in space, but in time. When you make time for someone, you are giving them a place in your life.

How to Live a Holy Life.. in Space and Time?

There's a good illustration of this concept in the song, "Cat's In the Cradle" by Harry Chapin. The story of the song is about a dad who lives with his son, but can't ever seem to make time for him. He always has "planes to catch and bills to pay," and he turns his son down when he asks him to teach him how to throw the ball around. The dad in that song isn't malicious, he promises his son that there will be time for him, not now, but in the future: "We'll get together then." But his son grows up and becomes just like his father, he goes to college, he starts a family, and when the father is ready to spend time with his son, the son has become a father of his own, with no time for his dad.

David: It's a really, really sad song. The idea of making time for someone you live with seems absurd. You occupy the same space! You eat meals together, sleep in the same home together. But making a place for someone else isn't only about space, it's also about time. Making sure to be makdish time for your loved ones, to make a place for them in your lives, is the act of making time holy.

That is what the holy days, the holidays are about. God says: there are a few moments throughout the week, and throughout the year, in which you should set aside time for our relationship. Sheshet yamim te'aseh melacha, uvayom hashvii shabbat shabbaton mikra kodesh – six days, you guys should do your thing, go create, build your lives, but the 7th day? That day is set aside. It is holy. Shabbat Hi LaHashem – it is our time, for us to be together.

Immanuel: The parsha describes the מועדי ה – the word mo'ed means an appointed time, but it also means a meeting time – as in the ohel moed, the tent where Moses would meet with God. On holidays, we would literally meet God – on Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot, we'd journey to God's temple and spend the holiday in His Presence. Those meetings are referred to as מקראי קדש, times in which we make a place – a place in time – for God. Each of the mikraei kodesh come along with a restriction on how to use your time on that day: כָּל-מְלָאכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ – and you must abstain from creative work. In order to use the time to reflect, to celebrate everything God has given us, and to recommit ourselves to our relationship with Him, we must let go of planes to catch and bills to pay, and we live in the happiness and clarity of the present moment, together with our beloved.

Connecting Laws and Living a Life of Holiness

David: Now we are in a position to understand the 3rd section of laws in our parsha: those of the Menorah and the Shulchan. As we pointed out earlier, these laws seem very out of place… why not include them earlier, when discussing the service of the Mishkan? What are they doing here, after the holidays? But maybe they're not out of order at all.

Let's take a quick look at these verses inside: וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. God says to Moses, צַו אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית–לַמָּאוֹר: לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד – tell Israel to take pure olive oil to light a candle, tamid, always. מִחוּץ לְפָרֹכֶת הָעֵדֻת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, יַעֲרֹךְ אֹתוֹ אַהֲרֹן מֵעֶרֶב עַד-בֹּקֶר לִפְנֵי יְהוָה–תָּמִיד:. In the kodesh section of the mishkan, Aaron should arrange the lighting from evening to morning, tamid, always. עַל הַמְּנֹרָה הַטְּהֹרָה, יַעֲרֹךְ אֶת-הַנֵּרוֹת, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, תָּמִיד – he should order the candles on the pure Menorah before God, tamid, always.

What word pops out at you? Three times we get this word, tamid – always. And it continues with the Shulchan: בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת – every week, יַעַרְכֶנּוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה – you should arrange the loaves on the Shulchan before God, Tamid, always.

Perhaps the essence of these laws is not the details concerning candle-lighting and breadmaking, perhaps the essence of these laws is this word: tamid.

Immanuel: Tamid is an expression of time. It means at all times. Both the lights of the Menorah and the loaves of the Shulchan are meant to be present before God always, at every moment. Earlier, when we learned about the Priestly work in the Mishkan, it was focused on who can serve God in His home… who can represent Israel in creating the physical space for God. But these laws of the Menorah and Shulchan aren't talking about creating a place for God in space… they're about creating a place in time. That's why they follow the section of the moadim, the holidays.

How Can We Live a Holy Life for God?

What connects the units of our parsha is the concept of kedusha. Kedusha in space, and kedusha in time. And while the parsha begins with the laws of the kohanim, people who need to perpetually be careful to be tahor because they are present in holy space, the parsha ends with the laws of the perpetual sanctification of holy time.

David: And maybe, this is the message of the progression of kedusha in time, from the moadim, to the vessels: Outside of the confines of the Mishkan, God gives us pre-determined moments in which we set aside time for Him – those are the holidays. But God follows that up by saying that in the Mishkan, there's no one particular time set aside for a relationship with God… In God's space, all time is always set aside for that. For us, six days of the week, outside the mishkan, in the camp, do melacha – build your businesses, plant your fields, but on Shabbat, make time for Me. Invite Me into your homes. And on the moadim, on the appointed times throughout the year, come to my place – come visit Me and be with Me. When we come to the Mishkan, we taste a microcosm of the ideal existence. There, the focus and attention is on God – Tamid, always.

Challenges of Living a Holy Life in an Unholy World

Immanuel: A fundamental part of our struggle as religious people deals with this notion of sacred places. Sacred places in both time and space. We live our lives somewhat devoid of spirituality, and focus on our studies, our careers, on building our families and on our own entertainment. And sometimes we feel guilty about how much of our lives are about us, and how little of our lives are about others, or about God.

Strangely, God does not demand all of you, all the time. We are not asked to spend our time entirely in the mishkan, or have Shabbat every day. But on one day out of seven, on a few appointed times throughout the year, and in one space amidst our camp, we meet God.

Those divine encounters are meant to reorient us, to remind us why we do what we do throughout our lives. Why we build our careers, how we spend time with our loved ones, and how to maintain our relationship with God, even long-distance. That is how we achieve closeness. Because making space, and making time, is the great secret of relationships. Of Kedusha.

Join us next week on The Parsha Experiment.

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