“Lessons from a Priest’s Wanton Daughter”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Emor, highlights the special status of the Kohanim, the priests, in the community of Israel. As descendants of Aaron, the original High Priest, all priests are presumed to be inspirited with special sanctity.

Members of the priesthood in Israel have many special privileges, as well as some onerous responsibilities. Economically, the priestly class is entirely supported by the public. Consequently, priests receive 24 special priestly gifts from the other tribes of Israel. On the other hand, they do not receive a portion of land in Israel, and have clearly designated responsibilities as ministers in the Temple.

Due to their special sanctity, priests are forbidden to come into contact with death. Hence, they may not attend funerals, except for their seven closest relatives. To this day, the Kohanim are honored with the special privilege of being the first to be called to the Torah, to lead the Birkat Hamazon, and to bless the people of Israel daily. On the other hand, they are not permitted to marry converts, wanton or divorced women. The High Priest was not even permitted to marry a widow. Priests who have major physical abnormalities are prevented from officiating publicly, although a disability did not limit the priest’s right to receive and partake of the gifts from the people of Israel.

In this week’s parasha, we encounter a very strange and seemingly cruel law concerning the daughter of a priest. In Leviticus 21:9, we read, “Oo’bat eesh Kohen, kee tay’chayl liz’noht, et ah’vee’hah hee m’chah’leh’let, bah’aish tee’sah’rayf,” If the daughter of a man who is a Kohen will be defiled by having illicit relations, she defiles her father–-she shall be burned by fire.

While burning by fire appears to be an extremely gruesome penalty, it is not truly different from any woman (or man for that matter) who commits adultery in Israel. Adultery is, of course, a capital offense.

Although there is a debate in the Talmud regarding the status of the priest’s daughter, all agree that the punishment applies only to a married or betrothed woman who has transgressed, not a single woman. However, in the case of a priest’s daughter, the punishment is more severe. Rather than strangulation, a harsher punishment is meted out, burning by fire. In truth, all capital convicts were drugged before they were executed, so this method of execution is only symbolically more gruesome. But the question remains: Why is it more severe, even symbolically? (In practice, the likelihood of capital punishment ever being carried out was also very remote, see Mishpatim 5772-2012.)

In Maayan Shel Torah, Wellsprings of Torah, Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman’s (1897-1943, rabbi and Torah commentator in pre-war Warsaw) classic collection of statements, thoughts, aphorisms from the giants of Torah, Rabbi Friedman cites a number of possible explanations regarding the case of the priest’s daughter. The Imrei Shefer (Commentary on the Torah by R. Shlomo Kluger, 1785-1869, Rabbi of Brody, one of the leading Torah scholars of the 19th century), explains that there are two types of sinners. Some sinners come from a long line of sinners, where sin is deeply ingrained in their family character. On the other hand, there are those who follow their own evil inclinations and stray from the proper path.

Usually, sinners begin with minor transgressions, because the evil inclination does not have the power to immediately seduce transgressors to commit major sins. Eventually, these novice sinners progress to more serious sins. The rabbis say (Shabbat 105b), “This is the strategy of the evil inclination: Today it says, ‘Do this,’ (a minor violation), and tomorrow it says, ‘Do that,’ (a more serious trespass), until it convinces the perpetrator to worship idolatry.”

However, in the case of the habituated sinner, the evil inclination does not have to work indirectly behind the scenes, slowly or methodically. A person who descends from a background of sinfulness is naturally prone to commit serious transgressions. The fact that the priest’s daughter commits the major trespass of adultery, says the Imrei Shefer, is a sign that the evil is deeply entrenched in her spiritual being that she has inherited from her family. Therefore, the Torah states that the actions of the priest’s daughter reflect poorly on (“desecrates”) her parents.

In a further remarkable insight, the Avnei Azel (attributed to Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman) expands this teaching to apply to all people of stature. He explains that Jews who think of themselves as “priests,” elite people of status and holiness, frequently cannot find the time to pay proper attention to their children’s education, because they are all-consumed with themselves and their own activities. While they may be preoccupied with seemingly “good deeds” such as studying the sacred texts, their daughters, who are left unsupervised, are seduced by the improper influences of the outside environment. Unfortunately, these children soon turn from the path of Torah, to violate the sanctity of their revered parents by their reprehensible actions. The devastating results prove clearly that the parents’ presumed “sanctified” activities were not truly sanctified, but rather self-centered activities. The improper nurturing of the young and easily-influenced children by their parents is a desecration of the sanctity, not an enhancement.

This thought-provoking interpretation of the priest’s daughters’ sinfulness is most compelling, and should invite much consideration among all parents and teachers. Of course, it is something that my wife and I were deeply concerned with when raising our children.

Perhaps the most prominent “parenting” lesson found in the Torah is the episode (Exodus 4:24-26) in which G-d calls upon Moses to return to Egypt to redeem His people. After embarking on the journey back, a child is born to Moses and his wife. Instead of immediately circumcising the child, Moses feels driven to reach Egypt as quickly as possible. For postponing the circumcision, G-d seeks to kill Moses, until, at the last moment, Moses’ wife, Tzipporah, takes a flintstone and circumcises the child. This episode is a powerful lesson for all Jewish leaders to always make certain that their own homes are in order, before they seek to redeem others. (See Shemot 5762-2001.)

Properly educating and nurturing one’s children has always been a primary concern of parents, and a hallmark of Jewish family life. Yet some recent trends in contemporary Jewish life are rather disturbing. What are we to make of the recent pattern in Jewish religious life of the increased absence of husbands and fathers from their family-nurturing duties? There seems to be a growing population of men who leave the Shabbat morning service after the Torah reading to attend synagogue “Kiddush clubs” where they imbibe in comradery and hard liquor, sometimes returning home to the Shabbat table in a state of partial or full inebriation.

Among Chassidic men, an increasingly popular custom is the Fabreng. The men rise on Shabbat morning, go to the Mikveh, participate in a leisurely morning davening, and then often, over more cups of vodka than one would like to admit, remain in the synagogue to “schmooze.” Often failing to return to their homes until late Shabbat afternoon, they leave their wives and children waiting at home to begin the Shabbat meal.

Even practices that are greatly and universally admired in Jewish life can be a source of challenge and disruption to the family. On Wednesday evening, August 1, 2012, the Jewish community, spearheaded by Agudath Israel, will celebrate the 12th Siyum Hashas, marking the conclusion of the most recent seven-and-a-half year cycle of the Daf Yomi, the daily study of the Talmudic page. The main festivities are set to take place in MetLife Stadium, in East Rutherford, NJ. Attendance of over 90,000 people is anticipated, with many thousands more expected to gather in stadiums, auditoriums and locations throughout the world. The Daf Yomi movement, is a remarkable and monumental achievement that, over the past decades, has resulted in the blossoming of Torah study among many men, including some who had never opened a Talmud.

As one who completed the study of an entire cycle of the Talmud about twenty-five years ago, I know how enriching the experience can be, and how challenging. I was, at that time, fortunate to have an educational position that enabled me, because of the scheduling, to devote an hour each morning to studying the Talmud, without it taking too much of a toll on my wife and children. But looking back, it was inevitable that devoting so much time to the study of Torah came, at least in part, at the expense of the family, especially during the children’s critical nurturing years.

Criticizing the Daf Yomi is like criticizing the sacred cow of Jewish life today. But these developments in Jewish life, that often come at the expense of family, husband-wife relationships and especially the nurturing of children, is something that must surely concern us. It is certainly wonderful for the Daf Yomi to promote the daily study of Torah. But, our Torah leaders should insist that for every hour of study that a man devotes to the Daf (the daily page), a commitment of an equal amount of time must be expected for parents to study directly and personally with their own children. If fathers who regularly find time to study the Daf cannot find the time to study with their own children on a daily basis, then the system is ill-conceived and misguided. Just as every Jew is expected to set aside time to daily Torah study, there should be at least an equal amount of time mandated for daily study with one’s children.

As in the case of the priest’s daughter, the bad habits that we see some of our children developing may not be due to the children’s own personal shortcomings, but rather due to a failure of proper parental nurturing. The only way for the priests, parents and children to become sanctified and remain sanctified is for parents to serve as sanctified examples for their children and their families.

May you be blessed.

Please note:

The festival of Lag BaOmer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday Night, May 9, and continue all day Thursday, May 10, 2012. The Omer period is the 49 days from the second night of Passover through the day before the festival of Shavuot. The 33rd day is considered a special day because, on that day, the students of Rabbi Akiva ceased dying and because it marks the anniversary of the passing of great Talmudic sage, Rabbi Simon bar Yochai.