Parshas Emor

This week’s Sedra deals extensively with various particulars pertaining to the Kedusha of the Kohanim. One of the more striking particulars is the Parsha of Mumim – imperfections. Hashem commands Moshe to instruct Aharon the following: ‘a man who is from your descent in any future generation that will have any blemish should not approach in order to offer sacrificial offerings. For any man who has a blemish shouldn’t perform sacrificial services.’

It is true that all Kohanim must be from Aharonic descent. Why, however, does the Torah emphasize the aspect of their lineage here in conjunction with blemishes?

Earlier in this week’s Sedra the Torah had told us that we must sanctify a Kohen for Hashem makes us sanctified. The Kessav-Soffer Suggests that the Passuk is telling us that even though in certain instances there might be a Kohen who is seemingly not so Holy because he conducts himself in an unbecoming manner, we must nonetheless sanctify him. The reason for his Kedusha, and hence the reason for our obligation to sanctify him, is not because he has earned a status of Kedusha for himself but merely because he is of Aharonic descent. Being from Aharonic descent gives him an intrinsic hereditary Kedusha. Hashem therefore points out that we all as well have an intrinsic Kedusha merely because Hashem sanctifies us and not because we earned it.

The Gemarah in Nedarim tells us some of the common causes for a number of the more frequently occurring handicaps. The reasons the Gemorah gives all relate to a variety of potentially good deeds done, not in the way Hashem had intended, but for their own, selfish motives by the parents of the handicapped person.

Perhaps this is the very reason that the Passuk emphasizes this idea of Aharonic descent in correlation to the invalidity of a blemished one to perform sacrificial ceremony.  Maybe here too the Torah is pointing out that when a Kohen has a blemish and is therefore unfit for the Avoda it is also not something he earned but rather a handicap caused by his parents.

There seems to be a very important theme in the Sedra being repeated again and again: Kedusha and the lack of Kedusha can both be hereditary. The Kedusha of Klal-Yisroel just like the more particular Kedusha of a Kohen are both hereditary. We are Kadosh because Hashem chose us to be His Holy Nation. True, Hashem chose us to be Holy because of the Holy acts of our forefathers, those of Avraham, Yitzchak, and, Yaakov. Those acts were so potent that on their strength alone Hashem made Klal-Yisroel intrinsically Holy for eternity. So too did Hashem sanctify the Kohanim for the noble acts of their forefathers: those of Aharon and his sons. Be it as it may, the opposite is then also true. Just as proper parental actions can generate inherent Kedusha in their offspring, so can inappropriate deeds foster an intrinsic lack of Kedusha in their children.

From both the Gemorah in Nedarim and from the portion in this week’s sedra dealing with Mumim it is quite apparent that spiritual behavior has an impact on the most physical aspects as well.

While children are not punished for their parents’ shortcomings, everything that we do has an impact on future generations. We must realize that our actions often have an enduring impact.

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Towards the end of this week’s Sedra we read the portion pertaining to the Ben-Yisraelis (the son of an Israelite woman) – the words indicating that his mother, but not his father, was Jewish. Rashi explains that the text refers to a case in which the mother had an affair with an Egyptian man.

It is apparent in the psukim that there was some sort of quarrel or dispute between this son of an Israelite and some other full fledged Jew. The Medrashim explain this dispute as being about where this son of an Israelite’s woman should pitch his tent – in other words with which tribe he should camp. Although according to Jewish Law being Jewish goes after the mother (matrilineal descent) (see Ramban here for explanation), it is the father (patrilineal descent) who matters when it comes to which tribe a person belongs to. Hence, although this Jewish woman’s son was Jewish he didn’t belong to any tribe. He wanted to dwell amongst his mother’s tribe. His mother’s tribe, however, felt that he didn’t belong there since his father wasn’t from their tribe. Somehow in the course of the argument over this subject, the Ben Yisraelis becomes so infuriated that he blasphemes Hashem’s Name.

In this whole anecdote, which is very vaguely portrayed in the text, there are three people who are mentioned: there is the son of a Jewish woman, there is the Jewish man who fights with the son of the Jewish woman, and there is the Jewish woman (the mother of the aforementioned son) – Shlomis bas Divry.

The two main characters of the story remain unnamed, while the only seemingly superfluous character – the mother gets mentioned by name. Why is it that the Torah tells us who the mother was and why does it omit the names of these two important characters?

Rashi explains that the reason the mother is singled out by name is to tell us how great Klal-Yisroel was: that from all of Klal-Yisroel’s women it was only this one who committed adultery with an Egyptian man.

While this may answer why she was named, it doesn’t answer why they weren’t named.

The Ohr-Hachaim asks why was it that the Jew who fought with this un-tribed Jew remains unnamed. The Ohr Hachaim offers two answers: he suggests that perhaps it wasn’t right somehow for the Jew that made a big to-do to have done so. The other answer he offers is that perhaps the Torah is only trying to tell us the importance of lineage: the Torah only points out to us that one was a full-fledged Jew while the other was missing something. The Ohr-Hachaim thus explains that this is the same reason that the Torah specifies the mother’s name, so as to point out to us that the whole issue stemmed from the fact that his mother committed adultery hence rendering him only a quasi Jew.

The Rambam explains that even though there is a Mitzva in the Torah to rebuke a fellow Jew who is sinning or just not acting properly, one still needs to do so appropriately – in a constructive manner.

Perhaps this is the answer for our anecdote: Shlomit’s son should not have pitched his tent in a place in which he didn’t belong. The one who started up the dispute with him was not ‘wrong’. He just did not deal with the issue properly. Through his confrontational style, he helped to bring about the anger and frustration that led the other to the point of cursing Hashem.

The Torah mentions neither the name of the one who cursed nor the name of the one who caused him to do so: the former because he was truly frustrated and the latter because he was religiously impulsive. Although he had the right intent he erred in how he conveyed the problem.

In our earnestness to do what seems right, we sometimes act impulsively, not properly taking into account the consequences of our actions. Our acts, no matter how altruistic, must be carefully thought through.

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Towards the end of this week’s Sedra the Torah recounts an episode involving a man with a Jewish mother and an Egyptian father.  The Torah tells us simply that this individual got into a fight with a Jewish man, and presents the brief anecdote in the form of a riddle.  It is Chazal who explain to us what is going on.

The Torah tells us that the man of mixed descent blasphemed Hashem. The Torah tells us that his mother’s name was שלומית בת דיברי. Rashi explains that the reason her name is given is in order to make it clear this woman was the only one among all the Jews of Egypt who lived illicitly with a man other than her husband. Rashi explains further that her name even hints to the fact that she wasn’t modest in her ways: Shlomis that she would ask all the men as to their Shalom – well-being, and Dibri that she was Medaber – spoke to all men. Rashi’s explanations are direct quotes from the Medrash Rabba (Shemos and Emor).  Rashi only quotes the parts of the Medrash that imply that this woman cheated on her husband. The Medrash, however, is quite clear that she did so without intent and unknowingly.

The Medrash explains that the Egyptian man who cohabited with שלומית בת דיברי was the very Egyptian that Moshe Rabeinu later killed. The Medrash tells us that this Egyptian man was the overall slave master for a group of ten Jewish slave captains each of ten Jewish assistant slave masters. The Medrash explains that he noticed the great beauty of his Jewish slave captain’s wife and he desired to be intimate with her (in Vayikra – Emor Rabba the Medrash is almost identical). The Medrash explains that the Egyptian overlord came early in the morning to wake this Jewish slave master and he then took the slave captain’s place in bed. Thus his wife didn’t realize that the man next to her wasn’t her husband, and it wasn’t until her husband returned that she realized what had happened (the Medrash in Vayikra Rabba says as well that she realized only at that point). The Egyptian slave master somehow realized that this Jewish slave captain had found out what he had done to his wife, and consequently intensified his oppression of the Jewish slave captain many fold – almost to the point of death. It was at this point Moshe Rabeinu saw what was going on, and through Ruach Hakodesh (Devine Inspiration) understood exactly what was going on between this slave master and his Jewish slave captain. Moshe Rabeinu therefore acted to save the Jew’s life by killing the Egyptian.

Although the Medrash in Vayikra Raba sees in the name שלומית בת דיברי negative connotations, it hardly seems to accuse her of actually willingly committing adultery. The Medrash also says that she was the only woman who cohabited with another man illicitly. There seems to be some sort of inherent contradiction in the Medrash.  Without the statement that שלומית בת דיברי was the only woman to have committed adultery, it would have been understood that although she didn’t commit adultery willingly, but rather accidentally – there still was inappropriate behavior on her part. While the actual adulterous act was committed unbeknown to her, by fraternizing with men in the ways indicated by the Medrash, she did contribute to instigating the incident.

Perhaps this is really the message of the Medrash – that שלומית בת דיברי was the only woman who contributed through her immodest behavior to instigate such an attack on herself. While the Mitzrim constantly acted in an immoral way with Jewish women (see Pesach Hagada), שלומית בת דיברי was the only one who contributed, however unwittingly, to the unfortunate culmination we know.

The episode of  שלומית בת דיברי provides a very potent message as to how significant the role of facilitator, of contributing agent can be. There is however yet an even more specific lesson to be learned regarding the concept of tznius (modesty, or more accurately, dignity) and morality. Dignity and morality aren’t merely what we do, but rather how we do what we do, and how we present ourselves to others. We need to be conscious not only of what is right, but of how others might see and interpret our actions and behavior.

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This week’s Sedra opens with particular instructions to the Kohanim. In the first of these, the Torah tells the Kohanim not to become Tamei (impure) by dealing with deceased people.  The Torah then, however, goes on to state that all Kohanim other than the Kohen Gadol may indeed become impure for a group of seven close relatives (father, mother, brother, wife, son, daughter, and an unmarried sister). On a simple level the implied reason for the Kohen’s not being allowed to become impure by dealing with dead bodies would appear to be that he should not allow himself actively to become Tamei. Allowing himself to become Tamei would render him invalid for service as a Kohen. So as to avoid this, the Torah forbade it.

If becoming Tamei is an inherent problem for a Kohen, why does the Torah allow him to become Tamei? If it is ok or simply a slight hindrance, why doesn’t the Torah merely inform the Kohen to avoid Tuma without specifically forbidding it?

It is clear from the fact that the Torah allows a Kohen to deal with a Mes Mitzvah (a corps found lying in the middle of nowhere) that the Torah does feel that there are times at which a Kohen must engage in certain activities even if these impede his ability to perform the Avoda (priestly services). This being the case, we must look at the prohibition against becoming Temei Mes and its exceptions as guidelines rather than some sort of blanket rule(albeit they can only become Tamei as per the precise exceptions). In other words the Torah really is suggesting that Kohanim avoid Tuma, while at the same time defining clearly the extent to which they can and can’t become Tamei.

If this is the case it leads us to yet another question: if the Kohen should avoid becoming Tamei why can he become Tamei for a close relative?

A person has responsibilities in life and sometimes important things have to be sacrificed for those responsibilities to be met. Family is a valued responsibility by the Torah. While the Avoda is very important for a Kohen to perform, the burial of a close relative is a real responsibility. Avoda is so important that a Kohein is forbidden from rendering himself incapable of performing it (even on a temporary basis). Nonetheless the Torah makes an exception for the sake of close family.

Very often certain elements of Avodas Hashem require other things to be compromised. Sometimes it is difficult to decide between two important things. The Torah is teaching us that responsibilities are the deciding factor. Responsibilities aren’t only important, they are obligations.

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This week’s Haftorah is from Yechezkel. It discusses all sorts of things to do with Kohanim.  It seems clear that the reason this Haftorah was chosen is because the bulk of the Parsha deals with Mitzvos Hakohanim.

While the similarity between Parsha and Haftorah is clear, and the choice obvious, there is an equally obvious question: the Parsha also discusses Yomim-Tovim and a few other Mitzvos that are pertinent to all Jews – Kohanim and non-Kohanim alike.  This being the case, Chazal could have chosen a Haftorah that would have a message more apropos to everyone alike. Why did Chazal select a Haftorah pertaining mainly to the Kohanim?

Sometimes a question itself is the answer. We seem to view Kehuna as an exclusive elite club. The reality is that while not everyone can be a Kohen the Kohanim still ‘belong’, so to speak, to us. While YisroelIim are not Kohanim themselves they have Kohanim in their midst. A Kohen is only a Kohen because he is one of Am-Yisroel’s Kohanim.

Perhaps Chazal, in selecting this text, chose specifically to emphasize the fact that Kehuna is something we all have and it is something relevant to us all.