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Torah Sparks

Parashat Emor
April 27, 2012 – 17 Iyar 5773

Annual: Leviticus 21:1-24:23 (Etz Hayim p. 717; Hertz p. 513)
Triennial: Leviticus 23:23-24:23 (Etz Hayim p. 727; Hertz p. 522)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31 (Etz Hayim p. 735; Hertz p. 528)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Much of Parashat Emor is dedicated to the special obligations and elevated status of the Israelite priest: the kohen. Reflecting the Jewish People's pre-eminent concern with life and with godly behavior in this world… and perhaps as a reaction against the Egyptian pre-occupation with funerary ritual and the after-life – the kohen is forbidden direct contact with dead bodies, a source of ritual contamination. An exception is made only in cases where the priest 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, the Torah continues, thereby commits a capital offense, as her conduct impugns her father's sanctity.

Yet more restrictive obligations of the High Priest are enumerated: 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 by virtue of any of a variety of physical deformities and blemishes: blindness, dwarfism, and other scars and injuries. Similarly, a Kohen may not partake of the "sacred donations" which are his priestly perquisites, should he be in a temporary state of ritual impurity. A number of additional laws regulating the burnt offering and the sacrifice of thanksgiving are promulgated. Parashat Emor continues by stating the schedule of the annual Festivals and Holy Days – a calendar of observance introduced by a repetition of the sacred nature of the weekly Sabbath. This chapter serves as the Torah reading for the second day of Passover and for both the first and second days of Succot.

In keeping with Emor's priestly theme, Chapter 24 discusses the kindling of the Menorah in the sanctuary, as well as the requirement that twelve 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: "For Love of the Name"

"You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people – I the Lord who sanctify you." (Leviticus 22:32)

Derash: Study

"What constitutes profanation of God's name? …If someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, and is of service to Torah scholars, is honest in business, and speaks pleasantly to others, what do people say of him? ‘Happy is the father who taught him Torah, happy is the teacher who taught him Torah; woe to those who have not studied Torah, for this man has studied Torah and look how fine his ways are, how righteous his deeds!' …But if someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, and is of service to Torah scholars, but is dishonest in business, and discourteous to others, what do people say about him? ‘Woe to him who has studied Torah, woe to the father who taught him Torah, woe to the teacher who taught him Torah! For this man studied Torah and look how corrupt his deeds are, how ugly his ways are!' (BT Yoma 86A)

The Hebrew word we translate as ‘profane' is ‘chillul.' Chillul literally means: ‘to create a vacuum.' Someone who commits a Chillul HaShem, profaning God's Name, is creating a vacuum in the world in which it appears that God does not exist. When someone commits an offense against God which is so blatant that it causes those who witness it to question whether there could really be a God Who would let someone get away with this—this is a Chillul HaShem. A Chillul HaShem makes God's Presence seem less real in the world. (Rabbi Shlomo Shulman)

In its simplest form, this mitzvah entrusts every Jew (whether he is aware of his lofty status or not) to serve as God's emissary in this world and positively reflect on God and His Torah. Any action that brings honor to God is considered a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of His name. Any action that disgraces God or the Torah is considered a chillul Hashem, a desecration of His name. (Rabbi Binyomin Adler)

Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem, in truth, reflect no more and no less than our relationship to God. If our behaviour is not one that others want to emulate, then we are deficient in our relationship to God. And if, God forbid, our actions push others away from Torah, we have shown that despite anything else we may do, we have no relationship to God. Like many of the most fundamental of Jewish mitzvoth, Kiddush Hashem cannot be defined in a narrow technical sense, but reflects the image we portray vis a vis our Creator. And with the shifting norms of the world around us, we must be ever cognizant that our portrayal is one that reflects well in the world in which we live. (Rabbi Jay Kelman)

Questions for Discussion

Must an action be truly sinful – "so blatant that it causes those who witness it to question whether there could really be a God" – to constitute chillul Hashem, profanation of God's name? What seemingly minor, innocent (even perhaps justifiable) actions do we and our Jewish communal institutions sometimes take that tend to "push others away from Torah" and therefore may amount to chillul Hashem?

Isn't it all but impossible to avoid at least perceived chillul Hashem in a polarized society where there are diverse perspectives, even diametrically opposed judgments on a host of moral issues? Is chillul Hashem always in the eye of the beholder? How do we distinguish between the need to set clear religious standards by establishing boundaries of propriety and inclusion... and the need to avoid unduly "pushing away" those who do not reflect or embrace our standards? When is a decision to exclude potentially a Kiddush Hashem?

Ironically, it seems that one who is immersed in Jewish piety and scholarship (see Yoma) is more susceptible to chillul Hashem than a Jew on the periphery of our religious tradition! The pious, the committed, the involved… are, as Rabbi Adler puts it, more visible "emissaries" of God. How is this "lofty status" applicable to all Jews? Is lack of commitment, failure to affiliate, religious apathy and disengagement from Jewish life itself a chillul Hashem?

How does accepting congregational office or a position of leadership within the Jewish community place unique religious obligations on the leader vis-à-vis our verse?

Theme #2: "One Rule to Ring Them All"

"You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 24:22)

Derash: Study

'For I am the Lord your God.' The reason given is noteworthy: show equal justice to all men, for I am your God, the God of Israel, the Father of all mankind. Once again, monotheism is the basis for the brotherhood of man. (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

That equality is a good thing, a fine goal, may be readily accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality… A person cannot be religious and indifferent to other human beings' plight and suffering. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel at the 1963 USCJ convention)

When one undertakes to administer justice, it must be with an even hand, and by rule; what is done for one must be done for everyone in equal degree. (Thomas Jefferson)

Nothing destroys the credibility of a government faster than its failure to provide fair and equal justice for its people. (W. Cleon Skousen, The Making of America)

There is but one law for all, namely that law which governs all law, the law of our Creator, the law of humanity, justice, equity – the law of nature and of nations. (Edmund Burke)

Treat all men alike. Give them the same law. Give them an even chance to live and grow. (Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce)

Questions for Discussion

What unique challenges face the State of Israel – by all accounts a robust democracy – in fulfilling the mandate of our verse… and in achieving a just and "Jeffersonian" society? Chief Joseph speaks of "an even chance." How does this differ from absolute equality? Is it "an even chance" that Scripture intends? How might Heschel answer this question today?

What are the implicit moral mandates of monotheism? That is, what does belief in a universal God (the essence of the Jewish People's historic mission) teach us about our treatment of other people… and peoples?

How might both sides in the current American debate over immigration reform cite our verse in support of their position?

Jewish ritual law clearly places unique obligations as well as privileges on Jews ("citizens") to the exclusion of non-Jews ("strangers"). Does this contradict or violate the spirit (or letter) of Leviticus 24:22? How do these two principles co-exist in a single religious system?

Historic Note

Parashat Emor, read on April 27, 2013, deals extensively with the role and responsibilities of the Kohen, the Israelite priest. The priestly pedigree of some (but certainly not all) contemporary Kohanim is reflected in their family names: Cohen, Cohn, Kohn, Kahn, Kahan, Kahane, Kagan and Katz, etc., all derive from the Hebrew "kohen" or Aramaic "kahana" – meaning "priest." Kaplan – meaning "priest" in Polish also frequently (but not reliably) indicates priestly descent. On April 27, 1968, "The Education of H*y*m*a*n K*a*p*l*a*n" – based on the books by Leo Rosten (also author of "The Joys of Yiddish") – closed at New York City's Alvin Theater, after only 28 performances.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Parashat Emor, in Leviticus 21:7, establishes the traditional prohibition against a Kohen marrying a divorcee (see also Shulchan Aruch Even Ha-Ezer 6:1). This prohibition extends to remarriage between a Kohen and the wife he himself has divorced, should the couple subsequently reconcile. Reconciliation and remarriage between a non-Kohen and his ex-wife is permissible (in fact, commendable), provided the divorcee has not married another man following the initial divorce (see Deuteronomy 24:14 and discussion by Rabbi Isaac Klein, Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, p. 383).

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