D’var Torah: Parashat Emor – Each opinion for the sake of Heaven

Written by Rabbi Hannah Kingston — 9 May 2020

Many have been feeling anxious this week as we await Boris Johnson’s speech to the nation on Sunday. Although warned to expect minimal changes, for many of us the slackening of lockdown is terrifying. Yet following the news of the losses of more jobs in the United States the government has felt the need to weigh up the impacts of lockdown on the economy versus the safety of the most vulnerable and of our NHS.


As Scotland and Northern Ireland extend their lockdown, our Government has reported that some measures are expected to change as soon as Monday. There have been a great number of discussions, with political leaders believing that they are doing what is best by their country. Here in the UK, panels of experts have been debating the best and safest way to begin the transition to a new and different way of living, a life outside of lockdown.


Debate is healthy, it is a part of who we are as Jews. In a tradition as rich, varied and nuanced as ours, disagreements about how to live a Jewish life and how to interpret the Torah are not only necessary, but desirable. Our narrative is constantly evolving, and every person who approaches it and interprets it, adds a layer to the tradition.


We, as Jews, are encouraged to argue, but only in a way that is positive, enriching and affirming, truly for the sake of heaven. What exactly is a debate for the sake of Heaven?  We talk often of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, two schools of thought, named after the sages who were known for their vigorous debates on Jewish law, ritual and belief. Their way of arguing, although heated, was centred around admiration and respect. They may have been famous for disagreeing, but they were also known to love one another and have a deep respect for the others differing opinion.



We see a debate of this kind around a verse in this week’s parasha. There is confusion about when the omer offering should be given to God and consequently when Shavuot should fall. It states, ‘the priest shall elevate it on the day after the Shabbat.’


It seems straightforward. ‘Shabbat’ is a day of rest and therefore this must refer to the first day of Pesach, a day consecrated as a holy occasion where we are commanded to not do any work.  The Pharisees, who acted as the spiritual forebearers of modern Judaism, believed that this Torah verse was commanding us to begin the counting of the Omer after the first day of Pesach.


But the Sadducees disagree. In no other place in Tanakh is the rest day of a festival referred to as a Shabbat. Knowing that no word in Torah is used without intent, and noticing the use of the definite article, they take this verse literally. In their belief the text is trying to convey to us that we should wait until the Shabbat in Pesach week, known as chol ha’moed Pesach. According to this ruling of the Sadducees Shavuot is always marked on a Sunday, seven weeks after the first Shabbat of Pesach.


To us, this debate may seem pedantic, but it has great importance to the Judaism we live today. For, not only does it determine the day of Shavuot, but it also determines the nature of the festival.


If we follow the ruling of the Sadducees, then Shavuot falls according to the fixed calendar. Shavuot will always occur on a full moon, making it a festival purely focussed on harvest times and crops. It would be a festival fitting for Temple life and practice, and would bring to mind the pilgrimage as we celebrated it in modern times.



But by celebrating Shavuot according to the ruling of the Pharisees, we think about it not in isolation but rather in the context of Pesach. As we count the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot we relive our unfolding Jewish history, beginning in slavery, and ending with law and justice as we receive the Torah. The Pharisees, who believed in the importance of custom, legend and tradition, give us a layered approach to our festival practice, and allow us to see that the debate is never ending


The discussion which determined the date of our festival is found in just one page of Talmud. Much of the reasoning and motives behind their judgements is lost in oral history. Whilst we will never fully understand how we got to our practices today, we must assume they debated with a good nature, with respect and l’shem hashamayim.


A debate for the right reason enhances not just our Judaism but our lives.  It helps us to hear other people’s opinions and to understand that all are equally valid, even if they differ from our own, for eilu v’eilu divrei elohim hayim (both are the words of the living God).


We are in an increasingly strange time, where we have a greater amount of access to other people’s lives. The zoom culture, where you can drop in on more than one service on a Shabbat morning, learn with rabbis from all over the world, and find an update on each countries lockdown policy at the click of a button, means that we are constantly able to judge one against another.


It may leave us feeling that other places do things better than us, that the grass is greener elsewhere. But we have to assume, that each decision made is not for personal interest, in order to save money or time, but rather is thoughtful and has been reached in a considered manner with the oral history of the debate lost to those not present. We must open our eyes to both sides of the debate and see that both are the words of the living God.


So even though there will continue to be two schools of thought, as is the Jewish way, we must be respectful of the choices others make, knowing that they are doing so with intent, with thoughtfulness, and to keep both themselves and others safe.


And even as the world begins to change, as things perhaps become more normal, we know we must continue to respect the way people are choosing to live their lives, or institutions are choosing to run, because they too have been through the debate themselves.


As we anticipate the announcement of the Prime Minister tomorrow, may we listen with respect, may we have faith that a decision has been made l’shem hashamayim, with thought and consideration to both sides of the debate. And may we support each and every person as they make the choices they need to make to keep themselves feeling safe.