Parshat Emor 2016 - 5776

Post date: May 20, 2016 2:18:12 PM

If we're lucky, we get to navigate a long life of balance, making time for us to pursue our own dreams, while not preventing others to pursue theirs.

Following on from last week's “holiness code”, Kedoshim, this week’s parsha, Emor, includes three chapters from the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) which mostly focus on that which is holy and clean, as distinct from that which is unholy, or, an abomination. Laws and statutes are presented that primarily govern physical contact with that which is unclean, both in the case of eating and in the case of touching, including sexual contact. These laws are designed to keep the Israelites kadosh (holy, separated, elevated) and tahor (pure, clean). Many of the laws and regulations in Vayikra and the rest of the Torah that concern cleanliness and holiness are designed to have the Israelites behave differently than those around them. Recall the central theme of last week's reading was “You (the Israelites) will become holy, for I your God am holy.”

The restrictions on eating, taking wives, and offering only unblemished animals were all behaviors not necessarily common to other ancient Near Eastern peoples. Other restrictions, such as separating crops and wearing clothing of only one material, made these differences even more visceral.

Chapter 22 of Vayikra begins with the commandment to Moses to da’ber el aharon v’el banav v’yi’naz’ru mikad’shei b’nei Israel. Translations differ slightly, though all agree that the verse generally states, “speak to Aaron and to his sons that they shall separate themselves from the children of Israel.” The word v’yi’naz’ru is interesting. It comes from the same root (nun, zayin, reish) as Nazirite, the person who takes an oath of extra separation in conduct (e.g., not cutting one’s hair) and extra restrictions in consumption (e.g., not drinking alcohol, wine, or even grape juice). Rashi notes that v’yi’naz’ru can mean to move away from or draw backward from. In this context, it is used to describe the separation or distance between the Israelites and the priestly class – Aaron and his descendants. Here, we see the epitome of separation – not only external separation between Jews and non-Jews about what we are permitted and forbidden to do, but internal separation within the community of Israelites. The priestly class is given particular rules and regulations regarding cleanliness – for example, not touching a dead body – that result in even greater distance between the priests and the rest of the Israelites.

But Chapter 24 of Vayikra also contains the well known laws of justice - eye for an eye*. Passuk 22 notes, “You shall have one law, both for the stranger and for the citizen, for I am the Lord your God.” Here, it is a seeming reversal of the separations described in the previous 3 chapters of Vayikra. No longer is the Torah describing how the Israelites are different, special, or other. Rather, this passuk states the exact opposite – the same laws govern the Israelites and the strangers. There is no difference in the standards expected, nor in the punishments meted out for breaking of those standards.

This tension exists in other places in the Torah as well – laws that seem to clearly apply to everyone, set immediately next to laws meant to treat Israelites differently than those around them. How are these ideas reconciled?

In fact, in our daily lives, they are often not.

We often find ourselves in the same tension as is illustrated by this week’s parsha. At times, we, as Jews, wish to be treated like all others, and we aim to treat all others the same. However, we also hope to be separate – to maintain those things that make us uniquely Jews.

The question then is, how can we achieve this balance? Chapter 23 of Vayikra – sandwiched between the laws for the priestly class and the declaration of ‘one law’ – may give us an answer. Chapter 23 describes our holidays, first and foremost among which is Shabbat. It is not just “Shabbat”, but “Shabbat Kodesh”. Following the rules for Shabbat are the yearly festivals, including Pesach, the Omer, Shavu’ot, Rosh Ha’shana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. Chapter 23 reads as a summary of a Jewish year, placed in the midst of laws about cleanliness, separateness, and punishment.

Why might this section be placed here? Perhaps we can look at this week’s parsha as an evolution of ideas. First, we begin with the complete separation of people – Israelites versus all others, even priests versus the rest of the Israelites.

Then we come to Shabbat. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (z”l) in his book, The Sabbath, noted that we Jews make holiness in time. Foremost among these separations is the elevation of Sabbath, a “citadel in time”. Shabbat (the essence of the 7 day week) is a cycle we superimpose on nature. Immediately following Shabbat are the cycles we see in nature. The calendar for the Israelites was an agricultural phenomenon. It celebrated times of the year when harvests were possible, and honored the hard work required to live off of the land. Sacrificing the first fruits was a powerful symbol in ancient Near Eastern times – a sign of trust in God and overcoming fear that the harvest would not yield sufficient food.

It is this fear that destroys separations between people. Fear of starvation, of drought or flood – this brings people together. In modern times, we see hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters doing the same. We can create as many artificial categories and boundaries between ourselves as we wish, but, in the end, nature and the vulnerability to the earth’s behavior – this unites us. Often, we hope and believe that our wealth or status may prevent us from falling victim to the unpredictable nature of our planet. However, time and time again, we see that people of all classes, all walks of life, must live side by side through the storms, the droughts, and the long, dark winters. And nature must also include “human nature”, the tendency towards our more animalistic desires to self-preserve, even at the expense of others.

It is this common vulnerability to nature that I believe is the ‘one law’ which underpins how we must all live together. Nature affects the immigrant and the citizen alike, and causes us all to recognize our own mortality on earth. This week’s parsha attempts to help us find the balance between universal laws for all humanity (justice) and laws that serve to cultivate our Jewish identity. It encapsulates what all groups must do to live in a pluralistic world.

Shabbat shalom,

Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher

*It is the culmination of an interesting story of an Israelite boy who curses God. The boy is stoned to death by the community, as was the proscription for blasphemy. The Torah notes that neither an Israelite nor a stranger is permitted to engage in blasphemy – the punishment for both is death by stoning.