Parashat Emor

Friday, May 17, 2019 /12 Iyar, 5779
Parashat Emor Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Dear Friends,

Firstly, in my words, below, don’t get caught up in the details. Note the bigger message, however.

Our Torah portion, Parashat Emor, commences with a possibly troubling, but surely anachronistic message, “The Eternal One 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.” (Lev. 12:1) Thereafter, the following verses indicate that the priest may defile himself by proximity to the deceased bodies of certain family members, namely one’s parents, children or brother.

Basically, the priest was charged to safeguard his ritual purity, so that he could conduct the necessary rituals in the sacred precinct. Proximity, or contact with a corpse, rendered the priest ritually unclean, and thus unavailable to conduct the rituals which his people might need.

Obviously today, we no longer concern ourselves with ritual purity for the sake of conducting sacrifices, though those who are descendants of the priests, the Kohanim, like myself, may enter cemeteries through separate entrances, to obviate their immediacy to a corpse.

Yet, there is an interesting distinction wherein a priest is allowed, and even required, to conduct burial rituals for a deceased person, and thus become ritually impure. The commentaries teach that should a priest happen upon a person who has died while in some faraway place, and there is no one else present to conduct the burial process, then the priest must do so, even at the expense of his ritual purity. Now, this may seem obvious to us, today, but it does represent a significant concession, and a vital, meaningful message.

The directive that a priest should forego his purity restrictions and take care of the dead is far more meaningful than the mere details would suggest. Rather, it offers an enduring value system which abides as a foundation of Jewish ethics: that we expand our duties when circumstances demand; we do not contract. Commonly, we hear people assert that “they don’t want to get involved,” or “that it is not their job” or their expertise. Such statements reflect a circumscribed outlook on personal and communal responsibility. Our text, however, offers a communitarian approach, in which the needs of the community supersede those of the individual. This is the ethos through which society and civilization flourish.

Thus, the wise admonition in the Torah, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge…” Torah knew that it is unfortunate and bad enough that a first, initial hurt was done; best not to compound it with further indiscretions due to a grudge, or even vengeance!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Doug Kohn