Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Parashat Emor - A Life of Service

b"h


Gd commands Moshe to speak to Aharon and to his sons - the Kohanim - for the laws laid down in the first section of this Parasha relate specifically to them and their Avodah - the service of the Mishkan and, later, of the Beit HaMikdash. Yet, at the end of chapter 21 (21:24) the text tells us "Moshe spoke to Aharon and to his sons and to all of Bnei Israel".

Many people argue with Halacha because they do not see an explicit statement in the text of Torah. The rabbis take the thrice-repeated injunction against cooking a kid in its mother's milk, for example, to be a prohibition (1) against cooking meat with dairy; (2) against eating meat and dairy cooked together; and (3) against deriving any benefit from a cooked mixture of meat and dairy, including selling it to a non-Jew or feeding it to a dog. The argument against this reasoning is: if G-d wanted us not to eat any mixture of meat and dairy, G-d would have told us explicitly.

Given the fact that the Torah speaks in language - and that languge, any language, is notoriously imprecise - this is practically identical to the argument brought against Rav Kook's position that Torah holds vegetarianism to be an ultimate towards which we must strive: If G-d had not intended humans to eat animals, G-d would not have made animals out of meat.

In this parasha, and not for the first time, Moshe is creating rabbinic Judaism, even as he receives laws from G-d and transmits them to their intended recipients.

Why does Moshe announce the Kohanic laws to all Bnei Israel, even though G-d explicitly states that he is to transmit them to Aharon and his sons? Rashi tells us that the rest of the nation - all of us collectively - are responsible for the Kohanim maintaining their practice. Indeed, it isn't easy being a Kohen. The job of the Kohen is to be in a constant state of preparedness; to be perfect physically - thus, not all qualify, regardless of Kevanah or disposition - and to be perpetually at the service of the people. The Kohen is explicitly NOT a holy conduit, in the model of a Catholic priest, for example. There is nothing intrinsic about the kahuna that places the Kohen in a closer or more direct relationship to G-d than the average Jew. Rather, there is a requirement placed on all Kohanim who qualify that they be perpetually ready to stand in for any Israelite in all ritual requirements: the bringing of sacrifices and offerings, and seeking atonement before G-d. After decades of service, the Kohanim retire. It is fascinating to contemplate what the personality of such a person must be, to have devoted oneself wholeheartedly night and day to being ready to stand in the presence of G-d on behalf of one's nation. The parallel of seeing-eye dogs springs to mind - creatures who by training, if not by disposition, are brought to an incredible level of obedience, caring and service. I had a blind friend once who told his dog to sit, then he and I left for a Saturday night out in the jazz clubs of New York. When we returned to his grandparents' apartment, some six hours later, the dog was still on the same spot in the center of the living room floor. Imagine a human being, having that same level of devotion, yet having it advisedly, conscious at each moment of the life he is living, of the task he must at every instant be prepared to take on.

This is a life of service. And this is a paradigm for the service that all Israel must be prepared to perform, in that we have the responsibility of Torah. It imposes on us a sort of noblesse oblige, that by virtue of being the possessors of this immense gift, we are also obligated to teach the world holiness by the very example of our lives.

Why, at the beginning of the parasha, does G-d lay so much emphasis on the Kohanim not coming in contact with the dead? The Mei HaShiloach, who has a sharp perception for the effects of Anger, says that the response of a person before a corpse is one of anger. He does not elaborate too much, but we certainly can all relate to the core of fear and anger we experience when reflecting on our own mortality. Thus, even the death of a stranger can give rise to these powerful emotions. In order to truly serve in their function as Kohanim, as intermediaries for the offerings and atonements of Bnei Israel, the Kohanim must be free of anger. When one is angry with G-d, it is difficult to bring an offering with proper kevanah. Indeed, as the Mei HaShiloach points out, anger is perhaps the single most destructive human emotion, capable of destroying in an instant what it has taken a lifetime to build.

And yet, this is an all too human situation: for we all experience death, the death of others - strangers, friends, loved ones - the death of our own selves. And we experience the fear and rejection and pre-reactive terror of death at times throughout our lives. Shakespeare tells us that cowards die many times before their deaths. But, while the valiant may never taste of death until their time, there is no human being who does not contemplate death repeatedly throughout her or his lifetime. And no one is born without fear. People who appear fearless are possessed of certain behaviors, and action is always better than paralysis. Ultimately, though, the purpose of all human religion is to enable us to confront our fear of death.

Judaism, unlike many other religions, confronts death by affirming life. The Jewish concept of an Afterlife is at best a vague one, and is a later addition, not explicit in the written text of Torah. I am sure I'll catch a beating from the Mashiach crowd, but the notions of Resurrection of the Dead, Rebuilding of the Beit HaMikdash, and the Coming of the Mashiach are potentially very dangerous, in that they allow us to be distracted from the Here And Now. Torah focuses us on this life, and life is a process. If we view our purpose as Jews to work to bring Mashiach, then we engage fully in the day-to-day and moment-to-moment process of holiness. This is our commandment as a people: to be a nation of priests and a holy people.

If, instead, we wait for Mashiach, wait for G-d to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, wait for the Resurrection, then we are not behaving as Jews. We are sitting back and waiting for G-d to do all the work for us. Our parasha - chapter 23, verse 3 - tells us: "For six days work shall be done, and on the seventh day it is 'shabbat shabbaton' a holy day of being called..." The language is curious and suggestive - "... mikra'-qodesh ..." with the word "mikra'" often being translated as "convocation", being called together. Indeed, the unity of Israel is seen as critical to the task and destiny of Israel. It is not enough for us to refrain from work. As Rabbi Riskin is so fond of saying: "Shabbos is not a noun, it's a verb. You have to learn how to Shabbos!" And let us remember that Shabbat is also a verb that extends throughout the other six days of the week. It is our obligation to see to it that the work of the other six days is done, is completed, and is carried out in such a way that the rest of the nations will stand in awe of our achievement, of our attitude, of our bearing, of the profound effect we have on the world. Then, once we have perfected ourselves and our six days, Shabbat is so sacred and so critically defines G-d's presence in the world that even an animal to be brought for an offering to G-d may not be slaughtered until it is eight days old - until it has lived through at least one shabbat.

As the Kohanim to Am Israel, so Am Israel to the world. The task is a burden, and we must stand in a constant state of preparedness, for in a sense, we minister to G-d on behalf of all humanity. It is through overcoming our emoitonal impulses that we aspire to the life of Torah. We do not deny our human emotions, our drives and desires; but we recognize them, love them and ourselves and one another for all that is human, then seek to understand them through the wisdom of Torah and the teachings of the Rabbis. Whether you agree with each "man de'omer" or not, it is undeniable that many thousands of the most intelligent people in history have spent every moment of their lives over the last three thousand years contemplating every aspect of human existence. How blessed are we to be the inheritors of this!

And it is our task to serve as the Kohanim for the world. It is through sanctifying the world each day, each moment, that we engage in the work of bringing Mashiach. It is through transmitting Torah to our children and to generations unborn that we ensure Resurrection - the resurrection of what it means in every generation to be a Jew - it is through making of our homes a Bayit Ne'eman beIsrael - a beautiful house within Israel - that we constantly engage in the building of the eternal Beit HaMikdash.

No one ever said being Chosen was going to be easy.

Yours for a better world.

5 Comments:

Blogger NeilLitt said...

There are two observations here that I am especially drawn to study:

(1) "Why does Moshe announce the Kohanic laws to all Bnei Israel, even though G-d explicitly states that he is to transmit them to Aharon and his sons?"

(2) "Why, at the beginning of the parasha, does G-d lay so much emphasis on the Kohanim not coming in contact with the dead?"

Regarding the first, I am in awe of the suggestion that Moshes's "interpretation" of God's plain statement is "Moshe . . .creating rabbinic Judaism." Why can't we extend that to also suggest that Rav Kook's endorsement of vegetarianism continues the unveiling of rabbinic Judaism? The laws of kashrut are, after all, at least as much concerned with sparing the animal from unnecessary pain as preserving its purity as a food substance. In a time when abundant produce can meet all our nutritional needs, perhaps it is time to construct an eruv around our livestock!

As to the second, I would also consider the "response" of the corpse. We do not recite the Sh'ma in the presence of a corpse so as not to "mock a pauper." How much more would the pauper be mocked by laying in the shadow of the one who intercedes with atonement for those who still live to receive Divine forgiveness. (This is not to argue that anger plays no part in the relationship between living and dead, but to add another perspective.)

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