“Distractions, Distractions!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s Torah portion, parashat Emor, opens with an extensive series of laws regarding the conduct of the Kohanim, the priests of the Jewish nation, who minister and serve in the Tabernacle and the Temple.

Because of the elevated status of the Kohanim and the sanctity of the Tabernacle and Temple, priests are required to follow a strict physical and spiritual regimen. Due to the serious responsibilities conferred upon them, the Kohanim are expected to live up to a sacred ideal, and be adequately prepared to properly perform their Temple and Tabernacle duties.

As we have previously noted (Emor 5765-2005), members of the priestly class are not permitted to come into contact with death. A lay priest may only attend the funerals of his seven closest relatives Relatives . The High Priest may not even attend the funeral of his own mother and father. The Torah declares, in Leviticus 21:10-11, that the Kohen who is exalted above his brethren (the High Priest), shall not, because of mourning, let his hair grow long or rend his garments. He may not contaminate himself [by coming in contact] with any dead person, even his mother or father. Leviticus 21:12 further states, וּמִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא יֵצֵא, וְלֹא יְחַלֵּל אֵת מִקְדַּשׁ אֱ-לֹהָיו,  כִּי נֵזֶר שֶׁמֶן מִשְׁחַת אֱ-לֹהָיו עָלָיו, אֲנִי השׁם  He [the High Priest] shall not leave the Sanctuary [because of a death in his family] and he shall not desecrate the Sanctuary of his G-d; for a crown–-G-d’s oil of anointment–-is upon him; I am the L-rd.

The Talmud, in Sanhedrin 18a, records the debate between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah the Prince regarding the meaning of this verse. Rabbi Meir maintains that although the High Priest may not take part in his parents’ funerals, he may follow the funeral procession at a distance. Rabbi Judah takes the words, “He shall not leave the Mikdash (Sanctuary),” literally, and maintains that the Kohen Gadol may not leave the Temple at all during the funeral of a parent. Rashi, notes that the rabbis learn from this verse that a High Priest who has suffered the loss of a close relative is permitted to perform the Temple service even while he is an אוֹנֵן “Oh’nayn,” in deep mourning, prior to the burial of the deceased. An ordinary Kohen, however, who performs the Temple service while he is an Oh’nayn, is considered to have defiled the sanctuary.

Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum in Peninim on the Torah suggests that a profound homiletical message may be derived from this verse. Rabbi Scheinbaum writes: “The Kohen Gadol, and for that matter anyone who makes the Sanctuary/Bais HaMedrash his home his place of study, should see to it that when he leaves, it should be only for a matter of great urgency or necessity. His spiritual sustenance is provided in the Sanctuary and every interruption diminishes the spiritual flow.”

This metaphorical interpretation has important contemporary implications. While history is generally looked upon as a record of the many great human accomplishments, at the same time, in important respects, civilization has significantly regressed. While contemporary science has mastered the ability to fly at much faster speeds than ever before, has landed men on the moon, and has enabled voices to be instantly transmitted from one end of the globe to the other, in other significant respects, humankind has retrogressed.

Because of the industrial revolution and its many scientific and mechanical advances, fewer people today are involved in farming or engaged in rigorous manual labor. The physical skills possessed by the ancient agricultural and hunting societies are rarely to be found among today’s workers. Despite many great contemporary medical discoveries, because of our modern habits and lifestyle, our eyesight and hearing are no longer as acute as they were among the ancients. As a result of the development of the printed book, our memories have also been compromised, and our abilities to concentrate have sharply diminished. Many young people today communicate orally only infrequently, responding instead only to texting and Facebook messages. In the “soundbite generation,” voice communication among young people has become much less common.

Attention spans among (not limited to young) people today have also become progressively shorter. “Tweeting,” which is a method of sending electronic messages composed of no more than 140 characters, has created a new standard of communication. While it has eliminated many unnecessarily long-winded notes, it has also eclipsed well-thought-out and seriously researched messages. The ability to sit through long, intricate lectures is rapidly vanishing. Ours is an age where almost everyone is easily distracted.

The message of Leviticus 21:12, וּמִן הַמִּקְדָּשׁ לֹא יֵצֵא, He [the High Priest] shall not leave the sanctuary, is of great importance. This verse not only restricts the priestly class from leaving the “Sanctuary,” but calls on all to recognize and acknowledge the importance of remaining in the “Sanctuary.” Because of the growing inability to focus, and the constant distractions, significant life-moments are often interrupted or neglected. One may be deeply engaged in a most intense and important discussion with a child or a spouse, yet feel compelled to respond to the beckoning call of email or the buzzing of the Twitter or Facebook account. In such instances the message to the child or the spouse is eminently clear: “Whoever is texting or calling is much more important than you. That is why I must interrupt our conversation and respond to them.”

The Torah’s directive to the High Priest calls, not only on him, but on each of us to recognize that while our careers and places of business may be important, they must not be regarded as our “Sanctuary.” Unquestionably, our synagogues and houses of learning are of great value, but even they should not be considered “ultimate sanctuaries.” In the absence of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the only “ultimate sanctuary” for the Jewish people today is the Jewish home and family. The sanctuary of the Jewish home should be our primary focus, and spouses and children must be regarded as the foremost priority.

The message of the Torah to the ancient priests is a vitally important universal message, to establish proper priorities in life! Business and profession must be seen as a means, not an end. Work is necessary in order to provide for the essential needs of the family: shelter, food, transportation, etc.. Even Torah study has its purpose, to convey to our children the importance of Torah values.

This message of parashat Emor is a universal call to focus on priorities and diminish distractions. Surely, the distraction for the priest is a serious one, the death of the High Priest’s parents. What could be more important than attending the funeral of one’s parent? The answer provided by this message of parashat Emor is that serving G-d and nation by prioritizing family, is of even greater import.

Distractions that are around us at all times, need to be overcome and defeated. Priorities must be properly set. While one cannot always remain in the sanctuary, the sanctuary can often be taken with us. It is for this reason that scripture declares that the People of Israel shall be, Exodus 19:6, מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ, We are all, in essence, a kingdom of priests–and a people who must always strive to become a holy nation.

May you be blessed.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Wednesday night, May 6th and continue all day Thursday, May 7th, 2015. 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.