Torah thought forFriday 14 Iyar 5783 May 5 2023

Parashat Emor

(translated by our dear friend Rav Daniel Levy Shlit”a, Leeds UK)

Exploring Why Am Yisrael as a Whole and the Cohanim Specifically, are Expected to Achieve High Standards in Their Lives

This Shabbat we shall read the mitzvah that the Cohanim may not become ritually impure through contact with the dead (meaning, it is forbidden for a cohen to touch a cadaver, or remain in a room with a deceased person since the ritual impurity of the dead is present there). Except for 7 close relatives, which are his father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter and wife. Likewise, it is forbidden for a regular cohen to marry a divorced or a profaned woman. Whereas a cohen gadol may not even become ritually impure for his father and mother and he may not marry a widow. It states in the passuk, “…declare the following to Aron’s descendants, the cohanim, say unto them: Let no [cohen] defile himself [by contact with] the dead...They must be holy to their G-d, and not profane their G-d’s Name. Since they present Hashem’s fire offerings…they must remain holy” (Vayikra 21:1-6). This means that the cohanim are commanded to be holy and to protect their unique holiness not to be defiled by the dead and not to marry women who are forbidden to them.

We must understand why did the Torah reiterate the command with “declare” and “say unto them”, why doesn’t it suffice with one expression of just “declare to the cohanim”? A further question to pose is why does it state in the passuk,  “declare the following to Aron’s descendants, the cohanim”, don’t we know that the cohanim are Aron’s descendants? Why does the Torah specifically emphasise this here?

In order to understand this we will preface the following. It is in a person’s nature to accept prohibitions that are logical to them, for example, not to kidnap or steal and similar prohibitions. However, prohibitions which have no practical understanding, for example, a cohen not entering a cemetery, which on the face of it has no practical understanding, but is purely a spiritual prohibition, since after all the cohen doesn’t touch the cadaver, he just stands within 6 feet of it, nevertheless, it is forbidden. Such a prohibition is hard for a person to accept, therefore the Torah cautioned against this with a double expression, “declare” and “say unto them”, in order to stimulate the acceptance of these things by the cohanim. Concerning holy spiritual matters it is very important that the cohanim know their elevated status and unique standing in Am Yisrael, to make it easier for them to understand and be protect their raised holiness to which they are expected to maintain. Therefore the Torah also emphasised, “Aron’s descendants, the cohanim”, so that they realise that they are Aron’s sons and to be conscious of the tribe to which they belong. For they are the sons of Aron the cohen, they are elevated from the rest of the general populace and they must be holy and protect their higher status of holiness more than the rest of the people.

This idea of feeling a sense of greatness that obligates a person to another level is a tremendous principle in a person’s life and that of educating their sons and daughters. Its practical benefit guarantees a greater vigilance in avoiding sin and from inappropriate behaviour. Since a person feels that they are one of Hashem’s children. For, “You have chosen us from all people, you love us and want us and have elevated us above the other languages”. Moreover the Torah declares, “You are children of Hashem your G-d” (Devarim 14:1), how may a person in such a status descend from his level to the level of sin, or iniquity, or unimaginable behaviours, in his position? We find with Yeshaya, “Listen to me, O pursuers of righteousness, O seekers of Hashem: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and at the hollow of the pit from which you were dug; look to Avraham your forefather and to Sarah who bore you,” (51:1-2). In this passuk the prophet says to Am Yisrael, see who your father was and who your mother was, “Avraham and Sarah”, and how may you, such esteemed children of these tzaddikim, be able to sin.

A beautiful story happened about 150 years ago and may be brought here in connection to what we are discussing. In London there was a large zoo located at the edge of the city. One day a lion managed to escape and it entered the city. Immediately all activity ceased in the city and everyone fled and hid in their homes, in case the lion mauled them. The mayor turned to the police commissioner requesting that he send them officers to capture the lion. The commissioner heeded the request and immediately ordered his young son, who was just 20 years old, that he go out and apprehend the lion. The commissioner’s son took a rope and went into the town city to capture the stray lion. Indeed after a few minutes, the son located the lion and immediately dashed towards it and after a brief struggle he succeeded in capturing the lion and tie it with the rope. This was all to the sound of public applause who people stood on balconies and rooftops and watched what was happening. However, everyone saw that in the struggle the lion managed to claw the commissioner’s son’s face, but this didn’t cloud the joy, for at the end of the day the lion was restrained and was led back to the cage in the zoo.

After about a week, the mayor arranged a huge reception with the presentation of an award, “esteemed member of the city”, to the commissioner’s son for having successfully captured the lion and saving the townsfolk, all in the presence of the heads of the city and civic dignitaries. At this event the father who was the police commissioner was also honoured, to award his son the prize. However, when the brave son ascended the podium to receive his award, his father noticed the scar on his son’s face and asked him to explain it. His son explained to him that during the struggle with the lion he was wounded and this scar was from it. The commissioner was angry with his son, and to everyone’s astonishment smote his son with an audible slap and then awarded him the prize.

He immediately arose and explained his actions. Please listen! Said the police commissioner to those present at the ceremony. When I was young there was a group of criminals that would go around the city and instil fear in the city and no one succeed in apprehending them, until they turn to me to deal with them. And so night by night we would ambush them, and little by little we succeeded to gradually arrest them. One night, we went out to arrest the most dangerous group that remained from this mafia. We engaged them head on and succeeded in killing them until only there remained the head Don whose entire body was covered in armour and steel, only his eyes were visible. I pounced on him and when I knocked him to the ground I was ready to kill him. He removed his steel helmet from his head and said to me, aren’t you embarrassed to kill a woman? I was shocked to see that the mighty head of the mafia who instilled their fear in the town for all these years, was in fact a woman. I immediately said, if you will repent, I will take you as my wife! And so it was, she repented and I married her, and this calf was produced, this brave son who captured the lion. Then the police commissioner raised his voice and announced, ladies and gentlemen! A child who is born to a father who is a police commissioner and a mother who was a mafia boss, then even a small scar may not be on his face. This explains the slap that I gave my son.

Likewise, the prophet Yeshaya said to Am Yisrael, you are the children of Avraham and Sarah, you may not have even the slightest of sins on you, and this is due to your elevated status. May we merit to experience this feeling of an elevated spirit, and live appropriately and fittingly as an Am Segulah (a Treasured People), children of the patriarchs, giant spirits. Amen.

Shabbat Shalom.

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