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Parashas Emor – Sanctification or Desecration… You Choose

Written by Daniel Sandground

Parashas Emor – Sanctification or Desecration… You Choose

This week’s Parasha is Emor in which we continue our ‘holy’ theme from the latter of our double parasha last week which was of course Kedoshim. Whereas Kedoshim dealt mainly with the commandments that the entire nation should strive to become holy and brought down the broad range of activities that brings one to this, the Torah now turns to the Kohanim, who according to the Ibn Ezra, have a particular responsibility to maintain higher standards of holy behaviour and purity due to the divine service which they are privileged to perform.

So the first restriction specified by the Torah so that the Kohanim should remain holy is the law that they “shall not contaminate themselves to a dead person among their people” [21:1]. Dead bodies have an impurity called טמא/tum’awhich clings to them (which is not physical but a spiritual impurity ordained by Hashem). Kohanim must therefore avoid contact with a dead body which includes the organs or even a piece of flesh. They are not even allowed under the same roof with one and certainly not on grounds where bodies have been buried. The commandment to guard themselves from impurity was originally decreed because they were serving in the Bais Hamikdash and therefore needed to be pure but we learn that this rule concerning the avoidance of contamination applies in every generation and Gemara Yevomas teaches that Kohanim have a mitzvah to educate even their youngest children to avoid this tum’a impurity. A Midrash gives over the following story in order to illustrate the importance of the Kohanim maintaining their purity in the Bais Hamikdash…

…When the chief cook entered the king’s service, he was warned, “you are responsible for the preparation of all the meals which are brought to the royal table. The king is accustomed to the most refined food prepared in a most aesthetic manner. If you ever touch a corpse while shopping in the market place, its odour will cling to you. The scent will be noticeable in the palace, and the king’s sensitive palate will detect it even in his food. Therefore, beware of ever coming in contact with a dead body!”

A Kohen is allowed to ‘contaminate’ himself in order to bury his close relatives; which would be his wife, mother, father, son, daughter, brother or sister if she is still in the family (ie. not married; if she is married then she is considered part of another family and the Kohen would not therefore be allowed to contaminate himself). Women who are the wife of or daughter of a Kohan, do not work in the Bais Hamikdash and therefore do not have these stringencies placed upon themselves as they do not need to maintain this high level of purity. We also learn that since Chava (Eve for you Anglicans), the first woman, caused death to all mankind with her sin, women are therefore not privileged to have a share in the holiness achieved by guarding oneself from contact with dead bodies… well done women! The Torah does however teach us that… “A husband among his people shall not contaminate himself to one who desecrates him” [21:4], according to Rashi this verse refers to a Kohen who has entered into a marriage that is forbidden to him as we are taught a few possuks later that… “they shall not marry a woman who is a harlot or has been desecrated, and they shall not marry a woman who has been divorced by her husband…” [21:7]. Rashi does however bring down a case where a Kohen can bury his wife even though she is forbidden to him and this is because although the marriage is forbidden, and he is prohibited from having marital relations with her, nevertheless, it is legally binding and can only be dissolved by divorce or the death of one of the spouses. Therefore, he is technically forbidden from participating in his wife’s funeral… we do however learn that if there is no one else to bury her (ie. she has no family), then even a Kohen must do so. Although this compassionate anomaly exists, we see from this commandment how serious a sin it is for a Kohen to go and marry someone who is forbidden to him by the sheer fact that in most cases he wouldn’t even be able to bury her if she was to die.

According to the Ramban the commandment that the Kohanim are to be holy (“they shall be holy…” [21:6]) implies abstinence which is relevant to the fact that they are forbidden from marrying these certain types of women. Kohanim must therefore steer clear of divorcees, converts, and harlots which Rashi kindly expands on to tell us that it is a woman who has lived with any man who was not permitted to her because of a negative commandment… including not only relationships which we spelled out last week but also a mamzer or a non-Jew. Unfortunately in today’s blossoming society of ‘freedom’ and ‘expression’ (please sense the sarcasm) where anything goes, this makes life very difficult for today’s average Kohen… so what can he do? According to the letter of the Torah, he must be very scrupulous in checking out the background of the girl he is to marry as Sforno quite clearly spells out… although Kohanim have many responsibilities and privileges beyond those of other Jews, they do not have the right to ‘resign’ from their position or to give up their prerogatives. They are servants of G-d, and for them to neglect or derogate their role is a desecration of G-d’s name. Rabbi Hirsch also speaks very strongly against such an act as he describes the Kohen as not merely an individual but a modern day representation of the Sanctuary of Hashem, he is therefore responsible to the nation, and the nation is obligated to compel him to remain true to his calling… which by Rashi would mean the community must force him to divorce any of the women which are forbidden to him. In most communities we merely prevent a Kohen who is in this situation from being involved in the Birchas Kohanim (the Priestly Blessing) or from being called up to the Torah, these smaller measures still flow from the idea that we must act against such people who are in breach of their responsibilities. It’s not all doom and gloom for a Kohen however, and on the bright side, if they don’t marry into a forbidden relationship then the rest of the nation must recognise the sanctity of the Kohanim by showing them respect and giving them precedence… this is why a Kohen is called to the Torah first and why one is given priority in leading Benching.

It is not just the Kohanim who have to remain holy, as we learnt last week, we too are obligated to be holy through the fulfilment of Hashem’s mitzvot and although we don’t have the same stringencies as the Kohanim with regards to purity we must nevertheless act in an appropriate manner which is fitting to being a Jew. In this week’s sedra we are commanded with the following possuk… “You shall not desecrate My holy Name, rather I should be sanctified among the Children of Israel” [22:32]. We therefore learn out from this that the primary privilege and responsibility of every Jew, from any given background, is to sanctify G-d’s name through his behaviour, whether this be among other Jews or gentiles. This is to be done through the study of Torah, the performance of mitzvahs and by generally treating others kindly, being an honest and considerate person etc. In my opinion it is no coincidence that we observe these midos (characteristics) almost naturally built-in to a Jew and this is why we see even non-religious Jewish people constantly involving themselves in charitable organisations and humanitarian movements. Only recently we saw a striking example of this… who were the first on the scene with the recent tragedy in Haiti? The Jews! This is a sanctification of Hashem’s name. We are taught that conversely, there is no greater degradation for a Jew than to act in a way that will make people look at the Jews in a negative light. It is brought down in Yoma (86a) that desecration of Hashem’s name in this way is the most serious of all sins and the one for which it is most difficult to atone. We see why this is such a serious sin today with every desecration made by a Jew being leaped upon by the world press, the biggest of these Jews being that of the land of Israel.

This section on the sanctification of Hashem’s name is finished off with the possuk… “I am Hashem Who sanctifies you, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be a G-d unto you” [22:32-33]… according to Rashi this seemingly obvious statement is there to tell us that we were liberated from Egypt on the condition that we would sanctify Hashem’s name and we were therefore taken out as his chosen nation to do his will. Ramban sees this possuk as a reminder that by saving us from slavery, we were made Hashem’s nation and he therefore has a right to make demands upon us such as that to sanctify his name… and what more beautiful way to repay Him than by fulfilling this requirement.

May we all be merited with the ability to properly serve Hashem! Shabbat Shalom and I wish everyone a fun-filled Lag B’Omer.

Daniel Sandground, (student at Ohr Somayach Yeshiva, Jerusalem)

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