from the heart of jerusalem

Living in the present while building for a future


An open road on a beautiful day, with your kids in the back seat, maybe even a picnic lunch; what could be more perfect?

I will always wonder what Tali Hatuel, eight months pregnant, with her four daughters Hila, Roni, Hadar and Meirav, aged 11 to 2 in the back seat, was thinking in those last moments. And went through her mind, their minds, as the sounds of gunfire filled the air and bullets tore through the car?

Nearly 15 years ago, on a road near Gush Katif, south of Ashkelon and Ashdod along Israel’s coastline, the family drive gave way to the horrible silence that followed the terrorists’ gunfire which took the lives of Tali Hatuel and her four children and unborn baby.

How do you fill that silence? 

A few days later, Boaz Shabo, who lost his wife and three of his children in a terrorist attack in Itamar two years earlier, came to comfort David Hatuel. He struggled to find the words, but of course, there are no words. 

During their meeting, David Hatuel asked Boaz Shabo the unanswerable question: “Boaz, how am I supposed to get up in the morning?” And Boaz responded: “You get up in the morning, and you get up — to no one. But … Tali [your wife] is looking at you from above, spurring you on to continue.”

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, has much to say on the both the challenge and the nature of this question. 

Emor opens with an exhortation to the kohanim not to come into contact with a dead body. Then, after around 50 verses specifically addressed to the kohanim, the parsha switches to a review of the Jewish festivals: Pesach, the counting of the Omer, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkoth, and Shemini Atzeret. 

What is the common theme that binds the seemingly incongruous topics of priesthood, death, and the festivals?

In describing the mitzvah of counting the days and weeks from the offering of the Omer sacrifice to Shavuot, the Torah tells us: “And you shall count for yourselves, from the day after Shabbat, from the day you bring the waved Omer offering, seven complete weeks.” (Leviticus 23:15)

It is interesting to note that the day we bring (and wave before the altar) the Omer sacrifice is called here Macharat HaShabbat (the day after Shabbat). Our oral tradition teaches, however, that Shabbat here refers not to the seventh day of the week, but rather to the first day of Pesach, also called Shabbat.

This is an important point, which was the source of great controversy in Jewish history. Over 2,000 years ago, the Sadducees, a sect of Jews who believed only in the literal translation of the Bible, understood this verse to mean that the counting of the Omer always began on the first Sunday after Passover, a point bitterly contested by the rabbis of the time. So if this wording became the source of such controversy, one wonders why the Torah chose to use such ambiguous terminology.

Obviously there must be some connection between this mitzvah of the Omer and the theme of Shabbat. So what does Shabbat have to do with the Omer, and for that matter with Pesach? Further, a closer look at the portion begins to uncover other allusions to Shabbat: In discussing the mitzvah of blowing the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah, the Torah tells us: “In the seventh month, on the first of the month, you shall have a rest day, a remembrance of Shofar, a holy calling.”

The Talmud in tractate Rosh Hashanah (fourth chapter) explains that this “remembrance” of the shofar refers to the fact that when Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat, the shofar is not blown, and only remembered. Why, in the midst of teaching us both the mitzvah of Rosh Hashanah as well as the central mitzvah of the day (blowing the shofar), does the Torah feel a need to allude to the mitzvah of Shabbat?

When the Jewish people left Egypt, the greatest gift Hashem gave them was the gift of time. In fact, the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, while they were still in Egypt, was the counting of the months, and the fact that “this month (Nissan, when the Jews left Egypt) will be for you the first of the months” (Exodus 12:2). A slave, you see, has no time, because his time is not his own, it is his master’s. A slave gives no thought to building a future, because the slave has no future.

And then one day, the Jewish people were suddenly free, with no one else deciding for them what they had to do every hour and every minute of the day. On the one hand, this must have been an intoxicating experience. At the same time, it must have been somewhat frightening. A slave has no budget to balance, no bills to pay, no worries about whether the crop will come in; it’s all in the hands of the master.

This was the challenge facing the Jewish people as they journeyed towards the land of Israel, knowing the miracles of the desert would soon be behind them, and a land needed to be conquered, its fields plowed and planted.

The Jews became a nation only when they left Egypt, because now they had a mission and a purpose: to be a “Mamlechet Kohanim Ve’Goy Kadosh” (a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).

Perhaps that is why this week’s parsha begins with the kohanim, the priests: Because the concept of the priesthood is a model for the Jewish people. The kohanim are our educators, who lead by example, and their lives are wrapped up in the service of a higher purpose, the challenge of bringing G-d into the world and into our lives.

Shabbat teaches us to step off the ride and take stock of where we are headed and why we are doing all that we spend so much time doing. And Shabbat also teaches us to learn to live in every moment, and appreciate each moment’s beauty and power.

This is why Pesach here is called “Shabbat,” and the counting of the Omer is begun on the day after “Shabbat,” because the Omer is all about appreciating each day of each week as we move from the Exodus towards Shavuot and the giving of the Torah. On the one hand, we count each day, to appreciate its gifts amidst all the little and sometimes very large challenges that may come our way, while never losing sight of the goal, represented by Shavuot, when we receive the Torah and with it our mission and purpose as a people.

And this is at the heart of all of the festivals, which are also all about appreciating each moment of each season, and each stage in our journey as a people, while never losing sight of the fact that each season and step in the journey is also part of a larger reality. 

And this is also at the root of the beginning of the portion: the defilement by contact with death. Death is the ultimate reminder that we are all here today and gone tomorrow. Thus the kohen, whose mission is to remind the Jewish people that there always has to be a higher purpose, avoids contact with death wherever possible.

Over 70 years ago, we as a people made a decision to build a future and not get stuck in the moment.

If there was ever a people with the right to escape the challenges of the future, or get stuck in the moment, it was the Jewish people of 1945. Yet, driven by the passion of a 3,000 year journey, we accepted a partnership with G-d in building a homeland, against seemingly insurmountable and often undeniably cruel and unfair odds. 

We still have a long way to go, as a nation and as a people. It is hard for us to imagine how David Hatuel managed to get beyond his present and move forward into an uncertain future. But he did eventually remarry, and build a new family. And somehow, perhaps the knowledge that we as a people continue to embrace the future amidst all the struggles of the present, will give strength and hope to us all.

Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.