Emor: Soul Management

How do you organize your day? When asked that question, most people think of all the things we have to do today. Not everyone likes structure, but I know for myself I make a list every morning of all the people I must reach, all the projects that need my attention, and personal work like exercise that I’d like to get done. I often feel it’s “been a good day” when I can check off most of the tasks I put down. I know it’s been an “awesome day” on the rare occasion when I can check off everything. On the flip side, I feel awful and unsettled when things don’t get done, or when the list is longer at the end of the day than it was at the beginning.  

It’s no wonder that I or anyone else judges the quality of our days by what gets done. That’s because there are only so many seconds in a minute, and only so many hours in a day. Whether one is rich or poor, time is doled out evenly across the cosmos. As the Psalmist teaches, “The span of our life is seventy years, or if we are strong, eighty years; they pass speedily like a flutter.” (Psalm 90, ibn Ezra) As time flies, the pressure to “get things done” feels very real. And hence we can obsess over how to organize our time so that we can check off as many boxes as possible.  

It seemed the most meaningful life was one of perfect time management. But COVID showed us what we knew all along – it’s not our time that needs management, it’s our souls. 

When things shut down last year and after the panic faded, so many of us found out that we could no longer be as busy or ambitious. The rhythm of life changed. Confronted with our own fragility and mortality, many of us shifted our thinking about what really matters in life – like our own health and the well being of people we love. It took being cut off from each other to rekindle the desire for connection. Instead of just managing our time, we started managing our souls. 

Spiritually, Judaism has been accused over and over again as a path of life that feels crushed by an unending to-do list. The mitzvot, or God’s commandments, have been construed time and again as an unending set of demands placed upon the world by God. In Jewish culture, the conversation around obligation created the spiritual attitude to fulfill God’s checklist for us. The Talmud often refers to one who has performed a religious act as being yotze, or “freeing” themselves from the daily requirements of life in the covenant. The problem with this attitude is that it can boil spiritual life down to a task list. Instead of focusing on how a mitzvah brings meaning and vitality to my life, I can become obsessed with doing it at the right time and precisely the right way. In other words, Judaism can focus too much on time management instead of soul management. 

While the Book of Leviticus cares deeply about times and procedures, there is no book of the Torah that is more focused on soul management. The sacrificial rites found in the first few chapters are prescriptions to heal your inner life. Further in the book, the messiness of sickness and death are not shied away from, rather they are embraced by making what could be shameful very public. The need for self-mastery through the encouragement to become holy like God and to act godly have as much to do with our inner selves as they have to do with the outcomes of our choices. And in this week’s Torah portion, Emor, Leviticus takes on the failed notion that time management is enough to create meaning.  

Instead, we find in the twenty-third chapter the sacred calendar. “These are occasions of God that you shall ordain as sacred and call them holy – these are those times which are Mine.” (Leviticus 23:2) God lays out a calendar of the year but puts the responsibility of making them sacred upon us. God gives you a blueprint for holy moments – opportunities to bring to the surface the soul-work that is needed to make life more meaningful. What follows is a calendar to schedule the deep work of dealing with mortality, fragility, and spirit. In other words, it’s not time management; it’s soul management. 

We all know that when we mess up and say things we should not have said or hurt people we love, we must apologize. Making amends is not just another task like fixing a leak or washing the dishes. Everyone is created in God’s image and finding the time to repair a relationship just won’t cut it. We must make the time. And so Leviticus gives us Yom Kippur, a day when we manage our soul to return the lost part of our relationships to each other. 

You don’t need a religion to tell you how uncertain life is and for the short amount of time we live we must fill our lives with joy. But it’s hard to get around to the most joyous moments, so look how wonderful religion is when Leviticus gives us Sukkot, a holiday celebrating the uncertainty of life by filling our shaky shacks with good food and great people.  

In a boundless world with endless tasks, it is easy to forget that we came from somewhere and some people. We are all the products of the dreams of our parents as they were of theirs. The chain of dreaming has resulted in our own existence. You don’t need a holiday to surface the eternity of dreams for a better future, but Leviticus gives us one through the rituals of Passover that forged us into a people and serve as a template for global liberation. 

Perhaps more than any other reminder, there are times when we feel overly much that our self worth is tied to our net worth. We need our own cease and desist letter because our souls are being threatened by the unending demands of our own insecurity. The Torah gives us that weekly reminder of the Sabbath, demanding that we free ourselves from the ambition to get ahead. And enjoy life just as it is. 

You don’t need a religion to do soul management, but having a sacred calendar certainly helps. Far from being an endless list of tasks, the Torah itself is a blueprint for management. Judaism, and especially Leviticus, wants us to build a civilization that prioritizes the parts of us that make us most human – our fragility, our emotions, our spirit, our pursuit of justice and holiness.  That’s what makes Judaism an extraordinary way of living life. 

Shabbat Shalom


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