Parashat Emor: The Symbolism of Change
Lisa Grushcow, an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program (Class 12), serves as Associate Rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City. She was ordained by HUC-JIR and received her doctorate from Oxford University. She can be reached at email@example.com
My annual seder table question is simple but good. “Here’s what I want you to bring,” I tell my guests in advance. “Bring something that represents freedom to you, and be ready to talk about why.” One person brought her conversion certificate. Another, an astronomer, brought an article about the discovery of new planets. A child brought a story she had written, and spoke about how free she felt now that she could read and write. One year, someone brought their grandmother’s passport which had taken her through Ellis Island. Someone else brought her credit card, and spoke about building her own credit for the first time after her divorce.
This year, I brought my gym shoes. Now, I was never a gym person. In fact, I was emphatically not a gym person; I never understood how people could walk to nowhere, bike to nowhere, row to nowhere. It never made sense to me, and I never had the time. Not to mention I didn’t want to run into anyone in the changing room. But after the holidays in the fall, I took the proverbial plunge, for all the usual reasons: I discovered I wasn’t getting younger, and I was tired of being out of shape. Thanks to the local JCC, there was a place that I could go. I decided that if I was working twelve hours a day, I could find one hour three times a week, without feeling too guilty. And much to my surprise, going to the gym has now become part of my routine. More than that, it has become part of my theology.
For me, the theology of going to the gym has absolutely nothing to do with the gym. It has everything to do with the fact that I’ve started doing something I never thought I would. It keeps in my mind and in my prayers the God who goes by the name Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, “I will be who I will be” – emphatically future tense.
And so I brought my gym shoes to the seder because they really do mean freedom: freedom to know I can change.
That’s important, especially now. When times are tough, most of us have a hibernation instinct. We want to move as little as possible and wait things out as long as we can. If that’s not an option, we cut. We cut our expenditures and we cut our activities. We also cut our expectations.
There is no question that for us as individuals and for the institutions that many of us work for, support, live in, and love, this is a time of cutting back. There is no way around the economic realities we face. But while we’re limiting everything else, I worry that we’re also limiting our imagination.
At my synagogue, we’re tightening our belt as much as we can. It’s not a time for new spending or new programs; clearly, that’s the right and responsible thing to do. But this week’s parsha was an important reminder for me of the other values that drive us. Emor speaks about the rules which regulate the priests. Among them is the law that no priest who is disabled can serve in the Tabernacle. Nobody with a broken limb, no one who is blind, no one who has any physical disability. People explain and make their peace with this prohibition in many ways, but I would argue that it’s fundamentally problematic. It’s one of those rare passages in the Torah where interpretation does not help me find meaning.
This year, Emor reminded me of the disabilities initiative that we have been wanting to start in the synagogue. I had been assuming that we would not go forward with any speed, given these difficult times. But Emor reminded me how much this is something I value, and something that we can start even without spending a cent (if your synagogue has done anything exciting or effective in terms of disability and accessibility, please do be in touch).
Above all, Emor reminded me that in a time of cutting back, we need to hold onto our values. Welcoming people into our communities is a core value. So too is the belief that we can – and must – change. As individuals and as institutions, we can try new things. We can take on new projects. We can imagine new possibilities. Made in God’s image, we can be who we will be.
I’m going to the gym.
This teaching is dedicated to Jonathan Schreiber and Nina Butler, WGF Alumni colleagues and friends.