Parashat Emor brings a very interesting combination. It starts with laws of mourning. Then comes the first Jewish calendar, the Torah’s first list of all the holidays, the joyful occasions of the year. (Even Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov, because of the joy that atonement brings to our lives.)
Why are these opposite themes in the same section of the Torah?
First, the laws of mourning. We learn from them who is a mourner: someone who lost one of the seven immediate family members — father, mother, son, daughter, sister, brother, and spouse.
So, if your grandparents died, you grieve but you are not a mourner. You don’t have to sit shiva or say Kaddish.
While Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews have different customs, neither return to the cemetery the day after the burial. Seven days of shiva — for the Sephardim — or 30 days — for the Ashkenazim — puts a separation between the mourner and the grave, giving time to reflect on the life of the loved one, and reminding everybody that we need to continue to live with the community, a reminder that we are social beings. The grave is not the place where our deceased moved.
For seven days the house is full of people coming and going, bringing food to the house, expressing their solidarity with their presence and sending the huge message: “You are not alone”.
From the Parasha and from just experience we understand that Judaism takes death seriously, but with moderation. We are a people that puts the meaning of our existence in our relationship with others. Our being is defined not only by the word “me,” but by the word “we.”
Judaism is a religion of life, not a religion of death. We are more concerned about how we live instead of how we die.
That may be why Parashat Emor ends with the list of holidays: to teach us that life happens in the realm of time more that in the realm of space. What makes our life is the moments of love we shared with family and friends, not the monuments we conquer or the material objects we amass.
It is in the moments, not the monuments, where life gets its meaning.
The Jewish people is still alive after 4,000 years because the calendar pushes us to build a community. We survived persecution and death, but also we survived living in the midst of different cultures, far away from our land. The secret? Parashat Emor brings it: because we don’t have holy sites, we have holy days, starting with Shabbat at the top of the list.