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Torah Sparks

Parashat Emor
May 3, 2014 – 3 Iyar 5774

Annual (Leviticus 21:1-24:23): Etz Hayim p. 717; Hertz p. 513
Triennial (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 Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Rules of holiness continue in the parasha with the first two chapters focusing on the priesthood. Priests are not allowed to be near a dead body (with the exception of select family members), to cut the corners of their beards, to marry a divorcee, to have a bodily “defect,” or to offer sacrifices while ritually impure. Lay people are not allowed to eat certain offerings or to offer a blemished animal as a sacrifice; animals must be at least eight days old to be offered (and cannot be offered on the same day as its parent); thanksgiving offerings must be eaten on the same day as they are sacrificed.

Holy days are detailed: Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. In addition, a farmer must offer his first grain crop of the year as an offering to God; clear olive oil must be used to light a nightly flame in the Tent of Meeting; and two rows of bread should be offered to God each Shabbat.

In one of the few narratives in the book of Leviticus, a man with an Israelite mother and Egyptian father blasphemes God’s name; God orders Moses to have the man stoned to death. God adds that violent crimes must have fitting penalties.

Theme #1: Levi’s Genes

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

The priests of Israel have awesome responsibilities, and therefore must act in a manner reflective of their unique status.

Rabbi Tanhum son of Rabbi Hannilai taught that Leviticus 21 was one of two sections in the Torah (along with Numbers 19, on the Red Cow) that Moses gave us in writing that are both pure, dealing with the law of purity. Rabbi Tanhum taught that they were given on account of the tribe of Levi, of whom it is written (in Malachi 3:3), “he [God’s messenger] shall purify the sons of Levi and purge them.” — Leviticus Rabbah 26:3

“Speak” is followed by “say to them” to enjoin adults with regard to minors. — Talmud Yevamot 114a

Ever since human beings have sought a relationship with the deity, they have also been aware of the dangers emanating from the holy. The closer one comes to the deity, the more careful must one be. Anyone who by profession comes into proximity with the divine dwelling and with the divine power concentrated there must exercise even greater caution. In our own world, such reticence before the holy corresponds approximately to the risk one undergoes when dealing with x-rays and radioactive substances. The x-ray physician is far more at risk than is the patient. Thus those who work directly at the hearth of danger must implement heightened precautions. — Erhard S. Gerstenberger, Leviticus: A Commentary

Questions for Discussion:

Leviticus Rabbah claims that the opening chapter in today’s Torah portion is uniquely “pure,” even though numerous other chapters speak of the importance of purity. Why might this chapter, which deals with distinctive rules for the priests and Levites, be given that particular designation? Why might it be difficult for the modern reader to understand the Torah’s finding it important to place such a high degree of holiness in one group of people? Is it because such designations run contrary to egalitarian principles of equality, or is this something different altogether?

The section from Yevamot responds to Moses being asked to speak twice in the same sentence by claiming that the rules for the Levites were to be transmitted to both older and younger generations. Our society has become adept at tailoring messages to specific demographics, have we become too focused on crafting messages for specific people in different age groups? Are there certain ideas that can be transmitted to both old and young with equal effectiveness?

Gerstenberger’s comment hearkens back to the incident of Nadav and Avihu, in which those charged with being close to God found themselves, tragically, in a dangerous situation. Indeed, being too close to sources of power (literal or figurative) of any kind poses many risks if one is not prepared for them. Are there modern examples of people who stepped over a line and were harmed by being too close to a source of power?

Theme #2: Interconnectedness

The priest who is exalted above his fellows, on whose head the anointing oil has been poured and who has been ordained to wear the vestments, shall not bare his head or rend his vestments. (Leviticus 21:10)

Even within this special group of Israelites, there is still a pecking order among these priests.

[Moses is to sanctify Aaron as priest, showing that] the holiness of the priests depends upon that of the people Israel. They, too, have to sanctify themselves. Even those who cannot become truly holy, when they take on a bit of holiness, add strength to the one who has been designated as holy, [enabling him] to be properly sanctified. — S’fat Emet

Why was [one priest] called “exalted?” Because he was greatest in five matters — in comeliness, in strength, in wealth, in wisdom, and in personality. It happened that Pinhas the Stonecutter was appointed high priest. When his brother priests went out and saw him still cutting stones, they did not allow him to go on and filled the quarry before him with gold denars. How do we know that, if he has no means, his brother priests must make his means great? Because Scripture says, “The priest who has been made great by his brothers,” which implies: Make his means great from the possession of his brother priests. — Yoma 39a & Tanhuma Emor

“He shall be holy to you”: Treat him with holiness, that he should take priority to commence in all matters, and take priority to bless at a meal. — Rashi

Questions for Discussion:

The Sfat Emet’s comment reminds us that many of us “feed off” the energy of other people; top-tier athletes often talk about feeling “pumped up” by a stadium filled with people cheering for them, or feeling motivated to silence a hostile crowd. Do we have a responsibility to publicly support a leader so that s/he does the job as well as possible? Or should doing the job right be motivation enough for that leader? Furthermore, do we have a responsibility to publicly criticize leaders when we do not approve of their actions?

The story from Yoma and Tanhuma Emor teaches that a high priest was expected to do lofty work and not to focus on what is deemed “ordinary.” With our modern political leaders, we struggle to decide whether we prefer them to be a “man/woman of the people” or to be somehow set apart, at the risk of seeming “elitist.” Should we hold a leader to higher standards of knowledge and behavior than those of the rest of the population? Should we give them kid glove treatment, at the risk of them being less in touch with the people they serve?

The lessons of Rashi’s comment are upheld in many communities, in which descendents of Kohanim are often given the right of first refusal to lead Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals), to lead the first Hakafah (rotation) during Simhat Torah celebrations, and other honors. What is the rationale for maintaining these customs? Are there any reasons for changing them?

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