Drash on Parashat Emor 2021

Drash on Parashat Emor     

Rabbi Kim Ettlinger
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, Victoria

The difference between perfection and holiness

We know, there is no such thing as ‘Perfection.’  But, there is something we could call ‘almost perfection.’  What do I mean by this?  It is when we get close to believing we have found perfection.  

If we try to attain perfection, we realise even more acutely that it is not possible, and that there is always more that we can do.  There is more to achieve, there is always more.  

To me, the pursuit of perfection is to know our vulnerabilities, our weaknesses and our imperfections and then to accept them.   And through that acknowledgment we can improve ourselves.    

This week in Emor, the Torah speaks to us for a third time in detail about the kohanim (priests) as well as the holy objects in the mishkan, for example the menorah and the tabernacle.  

Essentially this parasha contains 3 groups of laws.

  • The first is about the Kohanim
  • The second about Shabbat and the festivals
  • And the third group is about the Mishkan – table and the menorah

We ask ourselves, why are the laws of the holidays sandwiched between the kohanim and the holy vessels.

Let us look at Lev 23:2S – it says: 

...speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: The appointed seasons of the Eternal, which you shall proclaim to be holy occasions, even these are My appointed seasons.  23:3: Six days you will work; but on the seventh day, it is a sabbath of solemn rest, a holy occasion; you shall do no work; it is a sabbath to the Eternal in all your dwellings.

I consider this a moment of perfection, why? Because it is a moment of holiness…

In biblical times holiness is seen to express God’s nature and as the ultimate source of everything.  

Objects, persons, sites, and activities that are employed in God’s service derive their sacred character from that relationship.  The acquired character of the holy is reflected in the fact that when we consecrate objects, sites, and people to God.  We humans render them holy.  We make them holy.  

And, when holiness is conceived as God’s essence, then something magical happens… We see in both the priestly and prophetic writings, the emergence of moral perfection.  

For us as contemporary Jews… perfection comes in two areas.  Firstly in our relationship with each other, and secondly, in our behaviour.

Behaviour holiness is powerful and transformative.  It is perfection at work.  Like everything, however, there is a flip side.  When the holy work we do is taken too far, it can lead to  self righteousness.  This manifests in behaviour that we name “Holier than thou”.   These are people who behave with a sense of moral superiority.  This self righteousness in the end brings about a person’s demise and leads to a general lack of respect.

So what is moral perfection?  Moral perfection is the attainment of what we are trying to do.  Ultimately it answers a question - to make this world a better place through our behaviour and through our actions.  

Ernest Hemingway said:  “What is moral is what you feel good after, and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”  - The assumption here is that one does have a conscience. 

We have the opportunity of bringing moral perfection into our lives.  In Judaism, holiness is all encompassing – holiness is moral perfection.

Becoming bat mitzvah, love in a relationship, supporting loved ones through grief, and that feeling we have when we know that we have done something right, we have behaved morally in that moment.  And, Jewishly it is facilitated through the magic of ritual.  We sanctify a moment as holy with blessing and or with wine.  Then it is our actions, how we behave in that moment, that is ultimate perfection.

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