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Parashat 05/04/2011

Parashat Emor

by Robert Rabinoff


In honor of the US forces who just killed Osama bin Laden yemach sh’mo.


For a dead person among his people he shall not become impure. (21:1)

The scepter shall not depart from Yehudah… (Bereishit 49:10)

In the days of Mattityahu ben Yochanan, the Chashmona’i High Priest … (Al haNissim prayer said at Chanukah)


When Ya’akov gives his blessings to his 12 sons on his deathbed, he gave each one a blessing “according to his [own, particular] blessing.”  That is, each of the tribes has a role to play in the evolution of the Jewish people as a whole, and it is the interplay of all these different tendencies that produces the full spectrum of the Jewish people’s inner life and influence on our surroundings.  (Converts and people born of a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father form a kind of “13th tribe” according to the Arizal.  Tribal identification is through the father, while Jewishness is through the mother.  Since a member of either of these two groups does not have a Jewish father, they are not identified with any specific tribe.  Nowadays this is not really an issue, as nothing really depends on tribal affiliation except for Kohanim and Levi’im, and most of the activities specific to those groups do not apply in any time when the Temple is not standing, may it be speedily rebuilt!)


Two tribes in particular have very special roles to play in the life of the nation.  The Levites (includes the Kohanim/Priests) are responsible for the relationship between Gd and the nation.  Yehudah, the tribe from which King David and his dynasty sprang, and from which the Moshiach will come, is responsible for the life of the nation vis-à-vis the environment (political and physical) and its internal structure and functioning.  Perhaps we can classify this division in the way the Sages classify the mitzvot of Torah: there are mitzvot that are between people and Gd (bein adam laMakom) and others that regulate interpersonal behavior (bein adam l’chaveiro).  That this division is significant may be deduced from the observation that the first five of the Ten Commandments are of the first type (including “honor your father and your mother,” but that is a topic for another day…), while the last five are of the second type.


For the Jewish people to function properly, each tribe and each individual must play his or her part – the part to which they are uniquely suited.  When these boundaries are breached, trouble results.  Perhaps the most spectacular example of this was the Hasmonean dynasty.  Mattityahu ben Yochanan was the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) in the days of Antiochus of Chanukah fame.  He began the revolt against the Greeks and his sons carried it to its successful conclusion after his death.  Since they were all Kohanim, they were able to enter the courtyard of the Temple and purify it, light the menorah and re-establish the sacrificial service.  Unfortunately, they (and their offspring) also assumed the role of King, which is reserved for the tribe of Yehudah.  The dynasty soon succumbed to internecine squabbling, murder, and an unfortunate “invitation” to the Romans to intervene, which led directly to the destruction of the Second Temple, and the loss of Jewish sovereignty in Israel for two thousand years.  (Since they were leading the revolt it must have been permissible for them to become impure from contact with dead bodies, as undoubtedly must have happened.  But since leading the nation in warfare is more the business of the King than the Kohanim, perhaps this is also another example of proper boundaries’ being breached.)


Why should this be the case?  We do know that genetic testing has demonstrated that Jews are more similar genetically to other Jews widely separated in space, than they are with non-Jews in their host countries.  We also know that there are genetic markers on the Y-chromosome (carried exclusively by males) that appear to be almost unique to men who identify themselves as Kohanim.  Since our traits and proclivities are at least partially determined by our DNA, it appears that there is a physiological basis for the different tribes’ assumption of different roles within the larger community of Israel.  And clearly, the community as a whole is strengthened when each of its members plays to his or her specific strengths.  This would apply to tribal roles, gender roles, etc.  In Hebrew the part each of us is given to play is called our tafkid, that which we are appointed to do.  We each have an individual tafkid, which is nested in a family tafkid, a community, tribal and national tafkid.  Because we are each uniquely suited to our particular tafkid, our individual growth and the evolution of all the layers of community of which we are a member are maximally enhanced by our carrying out that tafkid.  As the scriptures of another culture puts it, “Because one can do it, better is death in one’s own tafkid then life in the tafkid of another.”


I believe that the specific distinction between Kohen and King reflects the duality inherent in the human condition.  We are a soul, infinite and eternal, but we inhabit a mortal body.  The body allows the soul to interact with and elevate the physical world, but when the soul stops directing the activity of the body, and instead becomes, as it were, fused with and under the control of the body and its ephemeral desires, then it gets dragged down into the mud of earth-bound materiality.  Rather than the spirit raising up the material, the material drags the spirit down.  The result, in order for the spirit to be free, is necessarily death.  In fact, the commentators raise the possibility that it is this necessity for death to free the soul from its material prison, that is the reason for the fact that Torah legislates contamination for anyone who comes into contact with a human corpse.


The natural state of affairs is for the Kohanim, representing the spirit, to remain unattached to the material affairs of organizing and administering human society.  That is the proper realm of the King, who in any event, under Torah law, must remain subservient to the rule of Torah, as represented by the Kohanim.  When the roles are confused, and in particular when the Kohanim assume the Kingship, it is as if the soul of the nation has gotten attached and imprisoned in the material affairs of the kingdom.  Since the Kohanim are best suited for a different role, and those best suited to administer the affairs of state are not able to do so, everyone suffers.


Unfortunately our world is full of confusion and ignorance over peoples’ proper roles, and we see people filling positions, especially positions of public trust, who are obviously and completely unsuited to such positions.  We see societies breaking down, disintegrating before our eyes like the Twin Towers, with the resultant death and suffering.  It is up to each one of us to try and discern our own tafkid and to live it as fully as we possibly can given the circumstances we find ourselves in.  Let us pray for Gd’s help in our endeavors so that we may soon see a redeemed world where all our activities are easily and naturally in accord with Gd’s Will, and all our individual actions will be harmonized into a coherent, blissful whole.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 2

Mishnah 2

Rabban Gamliel, the son of Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, says… Let all who occupy themselves with the community do so for the sake of Heaven, for the merit of their fathers sustains them and their righteousness endures forever.

R. Bulka comments: “… one who decides to spend time and effort for the sake of the community should do so not in the expectation of recognition or reward, but for the sake of Heaven. Where the motivation for communal involvement is personal glory, it is likely that important decisions will be made on a personality rather than issue basis.  The lure of immediate power may blind the communal worker to the real, but presently unpopular truth, and real dedication in a selfless way will be missing.  If actions and decisions are based on Gd’s will and design, they are likely to be in the true interests of the community.”  A glance at the daily news should suffice to convince anyone of the truth of this analysis.  In a day and age when our representative government is bought by moneyed interests, and our courts are too blinded by their own corruption to put a stop to the practice, the times when the community’s interest is placed above lust for power and greed for money are few and far between.  The government, which should be regulating and harmonizing competing interests, and protecting the weak and poor from abuse by the rich and powerful, has become a tool for legalizing that very abuse.  Such a society cannot long endure.  The upheaval we are seeing in the mideast at present is a reflection of what can happen when we don’t begin acting in accord with Gd’s Will.  May we wake up very soon!



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