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Sanctity of Time and Place

Parashat Emor (Lev. 21:1–24:23) opens with instructions to the kohanim, as well as the Kohen Gadol, encompassing the laws for maintaining wholeness in physical aspect as well as in familial relationships. In doing so, the priesthood serves as role modes for the nation. This peerless physical and emotional state is necessary for daily service in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). For example, a kohen may not touch a cadaver—only close members of his family. There are other exceptions. David Woolf, author of Torah I.Q: THE Great Torah Riddle Book, poses an interesting question regarding a Kohen touching the dead. Since Elijah was a kohen, how could he revive the dead son of the widow who lived at Zarephath? The answer comes from Tosafot, a school of 12th and 13th Talmudist, citing the concept of pikuah hanefesh wherein it is permissible to break certain commandments to save a life. (see Leviticus 18:5).

Parashat Emor expands on legal issues that face the kohanim, for example the laws of compensatory damages:

“If any party maims another [person]: what was done shall be done in return— fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury inflicted on a human being shall be inflicted in return.” - Leviticus 24:19-20

The above verse is quite relevant coming on the heels an incident describing a man who was found guilty of blasphemy(see below). The reference to “an eye for an eye” has often been used by the ignorant to mock the teachings of the Torah, mischaracterizing the verse as cruel when, in fact, it was never intended to taken literally. It simply means that when someone suffers damages of any kind, the court should see that full value for the loss—plus punitive damages are rewarded to the victim for their loss. The concept of an “eye for an eye” cannot be taken literally, the Sages asked what would the court do if a blind man attacked someone and blinded the victim in one eye? The blind assailant cannot offer up an eye in return! These kinds of laws reveal that Torah courts were always concerned with victims rights.

We find guidelines in Emor for use of the Menorah and the making of the Showbread. The twelve loaves of Showbread are symbolic of the relationship, with HaShem and how it sustains His nation. The loaves also represent humanity’s role as co-creators: God creates the wheat and we turn it into bread.

The description of the Showbread is followed by the curious account of a man condemned to death for blasphemy. Rashi, states, in the name of R. Berachya, that the accused publicly mocked the sanctity of the Showbread. He scornfully asked why Israel would offer nine day old bread to G-d. As he spoke, he used the Tetragrammaton) aloud. The penalty of death was not the result of simply pronouncing the Name but rather the mocking manner in which he used it. Rashi further explains that the offender was the son of a woman from the tribe of Dan but his father was a certain Egyptian overseer. The oral tradition relates that this taskmaster would wait until the husband of the Danite woman had departed for work and seduced her. The taskmaster was the very same Egyptian slain by Moses for severely beating a Hebrew slave, forcing him to flee Egypt.

The Haftarah for Emor comes from the book of Ezekiel and reveals additional duties for the kohanim in the legal realm, which includes instilling in the people, an understanding of what constitutes sacredness but also extends into the everyday legal realm with the kohanim conducting legal proceedings:

“They shall declare to My people what is sacred and what is profane, and inform them what is pure and what is impure. In lawsuits, too, it is they who shall act as judges; they shall decide them in accordance with My rules. They shall preserve My teachings and My laws regarding all My fixed occasions; and they shall maintain the sanctity of My sabbaths.”  - Ezekiel 44:23-24

The connective thread that ties this Torah portion together can be found in the commandments regarding Shabbat, the Counting of the Omer and the Shelosh Regalim—Israel’s three annual pilgrimage festivals, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot—all tied to the agriculture of eretz Israel. We see in these teachings that Israel is to sanctify a place (the Land) and time (Shabbat and the Festivals). This is Israel's destiny, to spend their days in holiness, in the Land of Israel—a place sanctified for that purpose. By pursuing their purpose, Israel will sanctify the name of the Creator by teaching the nations about Him and how we all can, eventually, spend our days inhabiting holiness. May it come speedily.

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