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Torah Sparks

May 10, 2008 – 5 Iyar 5768

Annual: Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23 (Etz Hayim, p. 717; Hertz p. 513)
Triennial Cycle: Leviticus 21:1 – 22:16 (Etz Hayim p. 717; Hertz p. 513)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15 – 31 (Etz Hayim p. 735; Hertz p. 528)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God instructs Moses to teach the priests the laws that apply to their special status. The only dead body -- the principal source of ritual impurity -- a kohen may come into contact with is a member of his immediate family – parents, children, siblings (and, according to the rabbis, his wife). They were not to shave their heads or make gashes in their skin as expressions of mourning. A kohen may not marry a harlot or a divorcee. Additional prohibitions apply to the High Priest, who may not come into contact with any dead body, even his immediate family, or marry a widow. A kohen with a physical defect was not allowed to offer sacrifices, though he still would be permitted to eat the portions of the sacrifices set aside for the priests. A priest who is ritually impure may not eat from these sacrifices. Only priests and members of their households – excluding hired workers and daughters married to husbands who are not priests – may eat the food offerings given to the priests. Animals dedicated as sacrifices may not have any physical defects, and an animal and its young may not be slaughtered on the same day.

God instructs Moses to teach the people about Shabbat and the festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. The priests are to light the lamps in the sanctuary and to prepare twelve loaves of bread each week to be displayed in the sanctuary.

A man who was the son of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father committed blasphemy and was brought to Moses. God tells Moses that the blasphemer is to be executed by stoning.

1. Speak and Say

The Lord said to Moses: Speak [emor] to the priests, the sons of Aaron and say [v’amarta] to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin. (Vayikra 21:1)

  1. [Why are there two forms of the word amar – speak, say – in this verse?] The first expression of speaking is intended to intimate that a priest may defile himself on account of a met mitzvah [an unidentified or abandoned body that has no one else to bury it] and the second that he may not defile himself on account of others. (Vayikra Rabbah 26:8)
  2. The sanctity of the priests derives from the fact that they are descendants of Aaron. But simply being descended from Aaron is not enough – they must have their own merits as well. The Torah therefore says, Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, that they should not remain content with being the sons of Aaron, but say to them – tell them that I am addressing them personally, and they must do everything possible to ascend in holiness on their own. (Rabbi Leibush Harif, d. 1833, Poland)
  3. Emor v’amarta – to warn the g’dolim concerning the k’tanim. (Talmud Yevamot 114a) Note: G’dolim and k’tanim can be translated as big and small, great and small, or adults and minors.
  4. To warn the adults concerning the minors that they should not defile themselves in any way. (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France] on Talmud Yevamot 114a)
  5. This is to admonish the great and righteous people to look after the small, seemingly insignificant commandments. When a person is dressed completely in white, even the smallest stain stands out. A person who is truly discerning is aware of his faults even when they are the most minor. (Yismah Yisrael, quoting Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizensk, 1717-1787, Poland)
  6. This is an admonition to the leaders of the nation to humble themselves and not to lord it over the people. The most important concern of the leaders of our people must be that the little ones, the children, be given a proper education. (Likutim)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators understand that nothing in the Torah is random or unintentional, so the two uses of the word amar – speak – in this verse are meant to teach us something. How does Vayikra Rabbah put the importance of the priesthood into context? How does Rabbi Harif expand our understanding of what it should mean to be a kohen? How do you feel about a kohen who is known to be an unsavory or nasty person being given the first aliyah or blessing the congregation on Yom Tov?

The comment from Yevamot is fascinating because it can be translated and understood in so many ways. How would you translate and explain it? How might you construct a d’var Torah on our verse?

2. Her Father's Daughter

When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire. (Vayikra 21:9)

  1. If she is profaned through harlotry, that a marriage tie of some kind applied to her and she committed harlotry, either while betrothed or while wedded. And our rabbis differ in this matter; however, all admit that Scripture does not speak of one who is single (viz Sanhedrin 51). (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  2. If a man is found lying with another man’s wife, both of them – the man and the woman – shall die. Thus you will sweep away evil from Israel. (Devarim 22:22)
  3. It is her father whom she defiles: she profanes and shames his honor, for people say regarding him: “cursed be he that begot her, cursed be he that brought her up” (viz Sanhedrin 52). (Rashi [Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 1040-1105, France])
  4. There are men who regard themselves as “priests,” as men of so great distinction and sanctity that they consider it beneath them to concern themselves with the training of their daughters. They are too busy with their own studies. But while they are rapt in the mysteries of the Zohar, their daughters have their noses in cheap books. In the end, such girls will adopt un-Jewish ways and thus reduce the holiness of their fathers. This is to teach us that the kind of holiness which leads men to care only for their own training, leaving them no time to concern themselves with the education of their children, is not holiness at all, but the opposite. (Avnei Ezel [Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman, 1897-1943, Poland])

Sparks for Discussion

In some parts of the world, women and girls are murdered by their male relatives because they have damaged the family’s honor by having an affair, by dating or by flirting with a man the family doesn’t approve of, or sometimes even if they have been raped. Read by itself, this verse might be seen as sanctioning this sort of so-called honor killing. But the Torah permits no such thing. First, only a court can impose a death sentence, and the rules of procedure make it virtually impossible to do so. Moreover, in the Torah, the death penalty applies only to willing adultery, certainly not to rape, and it applies to the man and the woman equally. Normally, adulterers were to be executed by strangulation (second most severe of the four methods of execution). This verse is telling us that in the case of the married daughter of a kohen, execution for adultery is by fire, a more severe manner of execution.

Do you believe the wrongdoing of children reflects poorly on their parents? At what point are parents off the hook? When a child becomes a bar or bat mitzvah? When a child goes off to college? Never? What are the most important influences on the behavior of young children? Of tweens? Of teenagers? Of college students? Do you think it is harder today to bring up good children than it was in the past? Can parents take credit for their children’s good deeds and menschlikheit?

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