Emor: Living our Gifts

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Emor

Greetings! It’s just about the midpoint of the Omer counting, which
means Shavuot is just around the corner (I can taste the blintzes

However, before we get to the holiday of the “first fruits” (which, by
the way, is described in Chapter 23 of this week’s Torah portion,
Emor), we have to learn a little bit about the sacred disciplines of
the ancient priests. This included refraining from contact with a dead
body under most circumstances; to this day, some Jews who are
descendants of the Kohanim will not go to a cemetery or a funeral home
out of respect for this separation between the priesthood and the
realm of death.

Anthropologists or theologians or historians might have all kinds of
theories as to why the priests should not come into contact with
death, but the Torah merely tells us that the priests must remain
“holy,” as in verse 6:

“They shall be holy to their God, and they shall not desecrate their
God’s Name, for they offer up the fire offerings of the Lord, the food
offering of their God, so they shall be holy.” (Vayikra/ Leviticus

Rashi notices that this verse begins with “they shall be” holy, not
“they ARE holy,” and brings an earlier teaching to the effect that
this wording in the future tense implies that the priest’s holiness is
conditional on his actions, and in fact, if he wanted to do things
which would reduce his sanctity (like coming into contact with a dead
body), he could. So if he did want to do this, he should be restrained
by the beit din [rabbinic court.] In other words, Rashi reads this as:
“they shall be holy, even if we have to make them holy against their

Again, we’ll leave for another time the exploration of why, exactly,
the Torah didn’t want priests to come into contact with death. For
today, I’m more interested in Rashi’s idea that if the priests wanted
to take actions which would impede their ability to offer the public
service, they should be restrained. To me, this is a fascinating
teaching, and an extension of the principle “kol Yisrael aravim zeh
l’zeh,” or “All Israel is responsible for one another.”

As I see it, Rashi’s explanation implies that there are times we
simply have to get involved in other people’s lives, to help them
achieve the holiness and sacred purpose that they are capable of- not
only for their own satisfaction, but also for the sake of the
community. A priest who defiles himself is unfit for service- not only
he but the entire people lose out on the opportunity to experience the
Sacred in the way that the priest could have effected. Similarly, I’ll
bet we all know people who are not achieving the spiritual
contributions that they are capable of; while none of us have the
legal power of the ancient court, we do have the influences of love,
persuasion and caring, which can sometimes bring out spiritual gifts
in even the most recalcitrant person.

“They shall be holy”- not always, and maybe not yet, but the potential
is there, to be fully realized with the help of others. That’s as true
now as it was then- a life whose gifts are made manifest is usually a
life open to the influence of others who care. This, in turn, implies
that part of each life’s task is to help others achieve the sacred
purpose for which they were uniquely born- true then, true now.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- as usual, you can find the text of the parsha and haftarah here:


and a summary and further commentary here:


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