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Emor

Posted on April 30, 2021

From the Rabbi’s Desk

Emor, 5781

The River Sambatyon Rages and Roars 

There is a playful rabbinic legend about a miraculous river called the Sambatyon. It is said that this river flows violently 6 days a week. Six days a week the River Sambatyon rages and roars; on Shabbat the River Sambatyon stops raging and roaring.  Six days a week it spews rocks as high as houses. But on Shabbat the Sambatyon rests, that is, it flows gently, like a normal river.  We might wonder what motivated the Rabbis to invent such a river. Obviously, the Rabbis knew, as we know, that there is nothing in nature that distinguishes the Shabbat from any of the other days of the week, not the sun, not the moon, and certainly not the rivers. 

“These are my fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.” (Lev. 23:2). Thus begins the festival calendar as it appears in Parashat Emor, delineating holidays and holiday observances. The first “holiday” listed is shabbat:  “On six days melakhah/work may be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, a sacred occasion. You shall do no melakhah/work; it shall be a sabbath of the Lord wherever you dwell.”  (Lev. 23:3).  Recently I was asked: “Why does the Emor festival calendar begin with Shabbat? After all, Shabbat does not require the court to proclaim a sacred occasion. It just comes.”

It seems to me that the answer to both questions is the same: it is to emphasize the importance of Shabbat and to remind us that Shabbat is a human construct.  There is nothing in nature that distinguishes the Shabbat from any of the other days of the week. Shabbat is only different if we make it different. Shabbat does not “just come”.  Making Shabbat takes work, ironic word choice intended. 

Think about the story of creation. God declared that there would be light and there was light. God created plants and the world is full of plants. God created fish and birds and animals and there are fish and birds and animals. Finally God created rest on Shabbat. Can we say that rest on Shabbat exists in the same way that birds and fish and flowers and trees exist? Not so much. Unlike everything else that God created, rest and Shabbat only exist if we stop, appreciate the world, rest, make Shabbat special.  

The Emor festival calendar begins with Shabbat because we actually do have to “proclaim [shabbat] as a sacred occasion”. We have to make sure Shabbat happens. We do it in different ways. We might come to kabbalat shabbat on Zoom before Shabbat begins to set the tone. We light candles and do kiddush. We might invite family and friends to eat with us. We might use the time to read Jewish books or do some Torah study. Or to read the magazines we have not gotten to all week. We might take a walk and appreciate God’s world. We might come to the Shabbat service morning livestream — soon to be offered in-person as well. We might do it the same every week or we might have differences every week. But shabbat will only exist if we make it happen. 

May the sambatyon of your life stop raging on Shabbat and may you have a Shabbat Shalom.