Emor: Spirituality in Community

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

Emor has three main themes: first, laws which apply to the priests and which distinguish between the the priests and other Israelites; second, the holiday calendar; third, laws pertaining to human life and capital punishment.

Hello friends- this week we’re reading the Torah portion Emor, which contains many of the foundational laws of the Jewish holiday calendar, but also a little hint as to another foundational practice of Jewish prayer. Right after a set of laws laying out which animals are appropriate for offerings, and which are not, the Torah offers a general principle:

“You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God . . . ” (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:32-33)

The second clause of this verse- “that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people”- is associated in the Talmud with the practice of reserving some prayers for times when we have gathered as a people. The key word is “in the midst,” or b’toch, which, through some associations with other verses, is understood to mean an assembly- a minyan of ten.  Rabbi Danny Nevins does a great job of explaining how b’toch is associated with a minyan of ten, but for now, let’s just take it at face value that to be “in the midst” does imply a spiritual value to prayer as a group.

The next obvious question is: why? Why does the Torah – or at least, the rabbinic tradition which interprets the Torah- value group prayer? We won’t exhaust this question today, but two thoughts bear repeating:

1) Judaism’s value of community prayer and liturgies does not mean that there is no room for spontaneous, individual,  private, secluded or contemplative prayer and meditation. On the contrary- these experiences are necessary aspects of a full spiritual life. I think it’s just the other way around: Judaism insists on the value of minyan precisely because without encouragement, we might not join with others nor engage with the liturgy of our ancestors, preferring instead the private contemplations and grateful prayers which can be made anywhere, anytime- without getting up early or driving to the synagogue or fumbling around with a prayerbook.

2) To me, verse 33 explains verse 32, but it’s hard to get in translation. In Hebrew, all the “you’s” are plural: “I the Holy One sanctified you [plural], and brought you [plural]  out of the Land of Egypt. . . ”

So another reason for communal spiritual practice is that we are rooted in a common history and a common destiny. It’s not so much an intellectual understanding of this common history that’s important, but the emotional experience of becoming deeply aware that one’s life is lived in the context of others, past and future. If spirituality can be understood- at least partially- as a broadened or deepened awareness of that which connects us to others and to God, then praying with others is a spiritual experience because it makes us aware that we are Jews, praying prayers which our ancestors prayed, being grateful at times and seasons that they were grateful (or sad, or repentant, etc.)

In other words- God is “made Holy”- that is, we have the opportunity for a deeper spiritual awareness- in communal prayer precisely because praying a liturgy with others helps push ego to the side, putting the self in the larger context of history, community, family and the turning of the generations.  If you’re praying with others, praying our people’s prayers, then by definition, at least at those moments- it’s not all about you, so to speak.

This is humility, which is the path to wisdom and compassion.

Shabbat Shalom,


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