“Communicating a Vital Message Clearly”

by Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Emor, contains 63 mitzvot– 39 negative and 24 positive. Parashat Emor ranks second, after parashat Kee Teitzei (74 mitzvot), as the Torah portion containing the most mitzvot.

Parashat Emor focuses on two major themes. The parasha opens with a comprehensive list of the regulations concerning the holiness of the priests and the sanctity of the Tabernacle/Sanctuary. The second part of parashat Emor is devoted to the theme of the Jewish holidays–Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, their rituals and observances.

The opening verse of parashat Emor is the subject of much discussion. The Torah states, in Leviticus 21:1, וַיֹּאמֶר ה׳ אֶל מֹשֶׁה, אֱמֹר אֶל הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו , And G-d spoke to Moses: “Say unto the Kohanim (priests), the sons of Aaron, and tell them: None of you shall contaminate himself to a [dead] person among his people.” The Torah goes on to note that all priests–-descendants of Aaron and his sons, are not permitted to contaminate themselves by coming into contact with any dead person. In fact, the only funerals that they may attend are those of their seven closest relatives: mother, father, unmarried sister, brother, daughter, son and wife (Emor 5762-2002).

The commentators are perplexed by the redundant wording in the opening verse in which G-d tells Moses, “Say to the priests”…and, “You shall say to them” that they are forbidden to be contaminated by coming into contact with the dead.

Rashi citing the Talmud in Yevamot 114a says, that “say” indicates that adult priests are forbidden to make themselves impure through the dead, and “you shall say” indicates that they must protect the minor priests from becoming impure.

Rabbi Chaim Dov Rabinowitz, the author of Da’at Sofrim, explains that the Torah repeats, “Say…and say,” to alert the priest that conveying this important lesson only once is not sufficient. This message must be repeatedly stated to warn the priests to be extremely cautious to guard their purity. Not only adult priests, but even minor priests are forbidden to come into contact with impurity. While this is true of all prohibitions found in the Torah, it is especially true with respect to protecting the priests from their impurities, which is an extremely severe violation.

The Mizrachi says that the first “say” is addressed to Moses, while the additional “and you shall say to them” is the beginning of the words that Moses is to say to the priests themselves.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch interprets the verse to mean: “You are priests by virtue of the fact that you are the sons of Aaron.” You have a responsibility to teach your children, beginning when they are very young, the importance of not becoming contaminated by contact with the dead. This represents an acknowledgment that the priests’ high status is the result of a familial line that must be honored.

The ArtScroll Chumash cites Rabbi Moshe Feinstein who derived from this verse homiletically that the Torah cautions adults to be mindful of their own behavior, because the example that they set will have a profound impact on the children who learn from them.

Rabbi Solomon Breuer , cited by Peninim on the Torah argues that there is a very important reason why the language of “Say onto them” is reiterated with respect to the actions of the Kohanim. Rabbi Breuer cites the well-known tradition that is brought down in Pirkei Avot/Ethics of the Fathers (1:12) regarding Aaron being a pursuer of peace, a lover of G-d’s creations, who brings them close to Torah.

The mitzvah of burying the dead is known in the Torah (Genesis 47:29) as חֶסֶד שֶׁל אֱמֶת .Chessed shehl emet” is regarded as the ultimate act of loving-kindness that is based on pure truth. Since the dead cannot express their gratitude to those who are burying them, it is deemed to be a totally selfless act that is unrewarded in this world.

Aaron is seen by the rabbis of the Talmud to be the paradigm and personification of the man of Chessed and the man of peace. In fact, every Jew is encouraged to follow Aaron’s exalted character of showing infinite love, kindness and consideration. It was through constant repetition and reiteration that the message of Aaron was communicated to his children.

Parashat Emor, which features the prohibition of the priests, the sons of Aaron, to come in contact with the dead, requires the prohibition to be reiterated even more emphatically. After all, the priests, as people who are indoctrinated in the art of loving-kindness, would naturally seek, with extraordinary zeal, to perform the ultimate act of kindness, by pursuing the mitzvah of burying the dead.

The Torah, therefore, declares that priests may not only not bury the dead, they cannot even come into contact with the dead. They must distance themselves entirely from death.

The one mitzvah that would seem natural for the priests to perform is the one they are warned not to do, simply because G-d said so. Though it may be counterintuitive to the children of Aaron, respect for the Higher Power takes precedence over  fellow humans.

Obedience to the Al-mighty, in this case, the demand that the priests go against their natural proclivity for kindness, must be ingrained in their education from their early childhood. A single speech is not sufficient. It must be iterated and reiterated, and communicated by constant repetition to their children as well.

This lesson applies not only to the priests and their children, but to all the People of Israel, who sincerely wish to be sanctified and elevated.

May you be blessed.

This Tuesday evening, May 9th through Wednesday evening, May 10th is Pesach Shay’nee, the second Passover. Click here to find out why a second Passover was ordained, who celebrated it in ancient times, and how it is commemorated today.

The festival of Lag Ba’Omer (literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer) will start on Saturday night, May 13th and continue all day Sunday, May 14th, 2017. 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.