Friday, April 5, 2013

Holy Work: Thoughts from Parashat Shemini


                 Having just concluded Passover, we take some time to think about what redemption means to us. Redemption is one of those loaded theological terms that is used often, but rarely understood. In the literal sense, we are redeemed when we are released from slavery. However, in a modern philosophical context, the term has taken on a different valence. Redemption has come to be associated with the value we can derive from our toils and struggles. A redeemed life is a life defined and contoured by meaning. In this week’s portion, parashat shemini, we come to understand redemption better through Aaron’s blessings to the Israelites. According to Rashi, who quotes the Rabbis, Aaron’s blessing stated, “May the pleasantness of the Lord, our God, be upon us (Ps. 90:17); May it be God’s will that the Shechinah rest in the work of your hands.” I think that there are two important things to learn from Aaron’s blessing.
         The first is that Aaron wants the Israelites to pursue holy and meaningful vocations. God should be with them not only in the Tent of Meeting or in the presence of the Tabernacle, but in the workshop, the office, and the battlefield. God’s love and values should guide and define our work, not just our worship. A blessed life integrates the Divine into every facet of the lived experience.
        The second thing to note is that the Israelites needed this blessing to be dignified and whole. After the Gold Calf debacle, the Shechina had been absent from their lives. They used their hands for evil, and as a result, the Divine Presence was no longer in their work. Aaron’s greatest blessing for them was an invitation to God to return to their work (after they had atoned and purified themselves.) After we have gone astray, we need to make the conscious effort to re-invite God back into our lives and into our handiwork.
        Our festivals, which force us to mediate on God’s role in our lives, help us recognize when the Divine has left us, and gives us the language to bring Her back into our daily lives. In this holy time between Passover and Shavuot, we are grateful for our redemption from slavery, and we look forward to revelation which saves us from nihilism and fruitless wandering. On Passover, we thank God for being physically freed from bondage, and in the following days, we bask in the blessing of a Torah which provides us with meaning, guidance, and Divine presence. Let us take the next days to think about how God fits into every element of our lives, and how to invite the shechina to be with us in all of our endeavors.