Parshat Emor

vineyard ready for harvest

Emor continues with exploring the nature of holiness. We learn about additional conditions on the behavior of priests, special rules involving sacrifices, the holy days of the year, and the law of “eye for an eye” – proportional justice. The Torah reinforces that service to God, sacred time, and justice are connected with holiness.

We saw last week that there are several major ways of understanding holiness:

  • Holiness is about separateness, separating the sacred from the mundane. It can have the connotation of chosenness or having the capacity to make meaningful distinctions.
  • Or holiness can be about following the mitzvot, in the sense of yoking our individual will to a comprehensive system of behavior.
  • More narrowly it might mean avoiding particularly abhorrent behavior.
  • Perhaps it is about living in ways that build and sustain a loving community.
  • Nachmanides challenges us to think of holiness as seeking the spirit of the Torah, not merely following rules.

Our Mussar teachers will push us to see holiness – to see God – in giving to others without expecting something in return.

Leviticus (21:11)
He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not contaminate himself even for his father and his mother.

[Because of the unnecessary redundancy in the verse] Scripture has no other intention than permit him to defile himself for a met mitzvah [a person who has died and has no one to bury him or her].

Nazir 47b (Talmud)
From where it is learned that a High Priest and a nazirite, who are prohibited from becoming impure even to bury their relatives, must nevertheless become impure to bury a met mitzva? … The Gemara comments: With regard to the rest of the verse: “Nor defile himself for his father or for his mother” each of these clauses must serve to teach a novel halakha. And the phrase “for his father” teaches: It is to bury his father that he may not become ritually impure, from which it may be inferred that he becomes impure to bury a met mitzva.

Note that the discussion in the Talmud is taking the verse as proof that the High Priest must bury a met mitzva! There is nothing in the verse that directly states this idea. What might seem like an emphasis is interpreted as an unnecessary redundancy that justifies a halachic pivot.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
In contrast to all other kohanim, the kohen gadol is commanded to continue performing the avodah in the Beis HaMikdash even after the death of a parent. Rashbam (10:3) explains that he must set aside his own feelings and continue the avodah because a cessation of the avodah would be a disgrace to Hashem. Nevertheless, if a kohen gadol comes upon a meis mitzvah (a Jew who dies and has no one to attend his burial) while on his way to perform the avodah even on Yom Kippur, he must take the time to bury the dead person. The fact that the body of a tzelem Elokim is lying in disgrace without anyone to tend to it overrides even the avodah of the kohen gadol on Yom Kippur.

When we honor a dead body, who are we honoring? Does the dead person care? Why is it particularly significant that the case is about an abandoned dead body? Does the family care? What can you expect in return for caring for an abandoned body?

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
If so much kavod is required for a meis mitzvah, then how much more kavod is owed to a “chai mitzvah”: a living Jew who has no one to nurture and tend to him. Indeed, Chazal tells us (Berachos 19b), “Kavod haberiyos [human dignity] is so important that it even overrides a negative commandment of the Torah.”

Berakhot 19b
Come and hear: Great is human dignity, as it overrides a prohibition in the Torah. … Rav Kahana replied … “The Sages based all rabbinic law on the prohibition of “you shall not deviate”; however, due to concern for human dignity, the Sages permitted suspension of rabbinic law in cases where the two collide.

Rabbi Wolbe asks us to think who may be a “chai mitzvah.” What are examples you can think of?

What does this mean about being holy? If breaking the rules to preserve human dignity is a higher goal, what does that tell us about holiness?

Leviticus (21:6)
So they must remain holy.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
Hashem is entirely holy since He is completely removed from all physicality. … Nevertheless, He gave us a means for recognizing His greatness … through the creation of this most awe-inspiring universe, and this revelation is referred to as “kavod,” glory. We can glean from here that wherever there is kedushah there is also an element of kavod. Since every person has been infused with a holy neshamah and therefore possesses a level of kedushah, this kedushah in turn necessitates that one conduct himself with a certain amount of kavod.

The root of the word “kavod” is “kaveid,” heavy or serious. The polar opposite of kavod is “klalah,” curse, which stems from the word “kal,” light. When one behaves with seriousness toward another person, he has shown him kavod, while if he makes light of another person he may end up cursing him. Kavod … can be defined as “an outward conduct that is necessitated by the reality of an inner kedushah.”

What does it mean to act with kavod with respect to yourself … to another person? What are concrete examples?

Leviticus (23:22)
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger

R. Abdima the son of R. Joseph said: What reason had Scripture to place it (the law concerning the corner of the field) amidst those regarding the festival-sacrifices — those of Passover and Shavuot on this side of it, and those of the New Year, Day of Atonement and “the Feast” (Tabernacles) following on that side of it? To teach you that he who leaves the gleanings, the forgotten sheaf and the corner of the field to the poor as it ought to be, is regarded as though he had built the Temple and offered his sacrifices.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
Chazal are hinting to us that closeness to Hashem effected by sacrifice can also be achieved by giving tzedakah properly. …Traits that are present in interpersonal relationships are automatically active in a person’s interaction with Hashem as well. …This can be understood through analogy. The heart can be compared to a closed room that has doors and windows. When a person is in a closed room he sees nothing. However, if he opens a window he sees both people and the sky. Similarly, a person who practices kindness is someone who has opened the window of his heart to see others, and when the window is open he is no longer focused solely on himself, so he sees the sky (i.e., Hashem) as well. The words yirah (fear) and re’iah (seeing) share the same root, because when a person “sees” Hashem he comes to fear Him. A person cannot interact with
Hashem in a respectiul manner while disregarding the way he acts with his fellow man, and vice versa. The manner in which he acts in one of his relationships will automatically find expression in his behavior in other relationships.

What does seeing another person mean? How might sensitivity to and awareness of another person be related to yirah towards God?

Do you agree that how a person relates to other people is a direct reflection of their relationship to God, and vice-versa? What parallels can you think of between showing respect to people and respect to God? Thinking about Shabbat ritual, what elements of honoring Shabbat might parallel showing respect to other people?