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Torah Sparks

May 12, 2012 – 20 Iyyar 5772

Annual: Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23 (Etz Hayim p. 717; Hertz p. 513)
Triennial: Leviticus 22:17 – 23:22 (Etz Hayim p. 722; Hertz p. 517)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15 – 31 (Etz Hayim p. 735; Hertz p. 528)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Much of parashat Emor is dedicated to the special obligations and elevated status of the Israelite priest, the kohen. Reflecting the Jewish people’s preeminent concern with life and with godly behavior in this world, the kohen is forbidden direct contact with dead bodies, which are a source of ritual contamination. An exception is made only when the deceased is an immediate relative, and so the priest is a primary mourner.

The sanctity of the priest is also expressed through marital restrictions: the kohen is forbidden to marry either a divorced woman or a woman “defiled by harlotry.” The daughter of a kohen who engages in defiling sexual behavior commits a capital offense, impugning her father’s sanctity. The high priest’s even more restrictive obligations are detailed: he may not defile himself through contact with the dead even in order to mourn for his mother or father; he may marry only a virgin (not, for example, a widow).

A priest is precluded from offering sacrifices if he has any of a variety of physical deformities and blemishes. Similarly, a kohen may not share in the “sacred donations” that are his priestly perquisites if he is in a temporary state of ritual impurity. A number of additional laws regulating the burnt offering and the sacrifice of thanksgiving are given as well. Parashat Emor gives the schedule of the annual festivals and holy days; this calendar of observance is introduced by a repetition of the sacred nature of the weekly Sabbath.

In keeping with Emor’s priestly theme, Chapter 24 discusses kindling the menorah in the sanctuary, as well as the requirement that 12 loaves of bread be placed on the sanctuary table, together with aromatic frankincense.

The parashah concludes with the execution of a blasphemer and the establishment of blasphemy as a capital crime. Capital, as well as lesser, proportional punishments are also prescribed for homicide and for inflicting grievous injury on either human beings or livestock.

Theme #1: “Emor: More Omer (whether in Rome or in Orem)”

“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the Sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:15-16)

Derash: Study

“We count the days that pass since the preceding festival, just as one who expects his most intimate friend on a certain day counts the days and even the hours.” (Maimonides)

“The sefirah period came to symbolize the ever-present insecurity of living in exile. And the pall prevailed until the creation of modern Israel. Its history has at last transformed the counting of the omer into a celebration of Jewish sovereignty and power after nearly two millennia of homelessness. There is nothing idle about the counting of the omer. Not only does it join Passover to Shavuot, but the Jewish people to Israel. Redefined by the twentieth century, it should bring us to reflect each year about the destiny of Israel in the grand scheme of Jewish history and the contemporary world.” (Rabbi Ismar Schorsch)

“The forty-nine days, connecting the exodus from Egypt with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, are a time of preparation and growth – of leaving a world of slavery and getting ready to enter a world of personal, social and spiritual responsibility. The Jewish mystics attached special significance to this period of the year as one in which the various facets of the soul were cleansed, one by one.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)

“Man is fond of counting his troubles, but he does not count his joys. If he counted them up as he ought to, he would see that every lot has enough happiness provided for it. (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

Questions for Discussion

Who (what) is the “friend” whom Rambam suggests we so eagerly await through the counting of the omer? The festival of Shavuot per se? The commemoration of the Sinai revelation it commemorates? The opportunity for protracted study with which the Festival is celebrated? What personal milestones and expressions of Jewish life do you anticipate most eagerly, virtually (or literally) counting the days?

The customary elements of mourning associated with the omer period are of murky historical origin and significance. Given Chancellor Schorsch’s observations about sefirah today, how might we reflect our new historic reality – and the blessings represented by the state of Israel – during the time of the omer?

What elements of the biblical account of the exodus reinforce Rabbi Sacks’ emphasis on counting the omer as a statement about law and responsibility? How does our observance of Passover – and specifically the seder – relate to this concept? Has the Jewish community found the proper balance between the liberation represented by Pesach and the fealty to law and covenant celebrated by Shavuot?

Why might it be that the relationship between Passover and Shavuot customarily is expressed through counting, and not through some other mechanism (graphically, ritually, through shared musical traditions, etc.)?

Theme #2: “Cuss I Said So”

“There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between the half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses – now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan – and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.” (Leviticus 24:10-14)

Derash: Study

“The half-Israelite wanted to pitch his tent with his mother’s tribe, Dan. But Israel had been bidden to encamp according to their ‘fathers’ houses’ (see Numbers 2:2). This man, son of an Egyptian father, found himself without any regular place in the camp; and in his frustration, he blasphemed.” (Midrash Leviticus Rabbah)

“This is a puzzling incident. Did the blasphemer curse God, curse someone else using the name of God, or simply pronounce God’s name without due reverence? The Torah emphasizes that the blasphemer’s parents were of different ethnicreligious origins. Might this have been a home where no religious values were taught, because there was no religion shared by all members of the family?” (Humash Etz Hayim)

“The name of the parashah, Emor, means ‘say.’ The entire section is about the divine sayings to Moses that establish an Israelite universe of meaning: regulations about fitness for the priesthood, fitness for sacrifice, sacred times of Sabbath and festivals, regulations about the sacred place, the mishkan. To blaspheme is to abuse language, the building blocks with which God created the universe. To blaspheme is to unspeak the world of meaning that one’s community inhabits, hurtling it toward chaos and unmeaning.” (Rachel Adler)

“By laying their hands on the blasphemer’s head, those who heard the blasphemous words transfer onto the blasphemer the guilt they incurred from hearing God’s name desecrated.” (Hilary Lipka, in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary)

“Obscenity, which is ever blasphemy against the divine beauty in life, is a monster for which the corruption of society forever brings forth new food, which it devours in secret.” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

Questions for Discussion

Why was the blasphemer’s offense punishable by death? His was a crime of passion – he lost control in the heat of the moment. Should this have been viewed as a mitigating or as an aggravating element of his crime?

What offenses of speech might we consider unforgivable and intolerable today? What is the difference between free speech and consequence-free speech?

Midrash Rabbah and Chumash Etz Hayim both focus on the blasphemer’s mixed parentage, suggesting that either he blasphemed because of a flaw in his upbringing or out of sheer exasperation at the insensitivity with which the community of Israel related to him. What are the programmatic and educational implications of these two interpretations?

Hilary Lipka advances the theory that those who heard the blasphemous language of the condemned man had thereby also incurred a measure of guilt. Are we damaged or diminished by the religious and moral failures we witness? What was the source of their guilt and consequent need for expiation?

Historic Note

Parashat Emor, read on May 12, 2012, describes in detail the duties incumbent upon the Israelite priest and the restrictions and observances that give expression to the sanctity of the people Israel’s hereditary religious leaders. On May 12, 1985, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Amy Eilberg became the first woman ordained as a rabbi by the Conservative movement.

Halachah L’Maaseh

The consumption of matzah is central to the observance of Pesach described in Parashat Emor (see Leviticus 23:6). This presents a problem to people with wheat allergies. Matzah can be made only from five grains: wheat, spelt, oats, barley and rye. If matzah made, say, from oats or spelt presents no health risk, you should acquire such substitutes. The consensus among rabbinic authorities is that you are not required to make yourself even mildly sick in order to fulfill a mitzvah! (See Tzitz Eliezer 14:27, Chazon Ovadyah 1:33.) As for those people who simply have difficulty eating matzah, for example, because of its consistency, rabbinic decisors have presented a number of suggestions: soaking but not dissolving matzah in water (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 461:4); breaking or grinding it into fine pieces (Bi’ur Halachah, Orach Chaim 461:1); eating the absolute minimum required – the bulk of an olive – a k’zayit. Remember, most authorities agree that there is no requirement to eat matzah except at the seder, and there a k’zayit is sufficient.

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