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Parashat Emor 5772 – 05/09/2011

Parashat Emor


Submitted by Robert Rabinoff

[The Kohanim] shall not make a bald spot on their heads, and they shall not shave an edge of their beard; and in their flesh they shall not cut a gash. (21:5)

You shall sanctify him, for he offers the food of his Gd; he shall remain holy to you, for I, Hashem am holy, Who sanctifies you (21:8)

Even against their will Beit Din [the Rabbinical Court] sanctifies them in [these matters]. (Rashi to 21:6)

The reason for this is that the Kohen is not merely an individual; he is an expression of the Sanctuary.  As such, he is responsible to the nation, and the nation is obligated to compel him to remain true to his calling (R. Shimshon Rafael Hirsch quoted in the Artscroll Series Vayikra)

The entire issue of the sanctity of the Kohanim raises issues of free will and autonomy, hereditary privilege and responsibility, and the relationship between the individual, society and Gd.  I would like to try to throw some light on this issue using an analogy from classical Physics, and see if we can understand Torah’s view of the matter, which, as usual, differs substantially from our Western perspective.

When I was growing up in the 1950’s the common understanding on the playground was “It’s a free country – you can do whatever you want as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.”  Of course we quickly learned that was not exactly the case.  Our parents and teachers were constantly reminding us that there were plenty of things we couldn’t do, even though on the surface they didn’t appear to be harmful to anyone else.  They were simply deemed “inappropriate,” though often nobody could explain just why.  For example, if my New York accent started getting a bit too broad for her tastes, my mother would simply say “educated people do not speak that way.”  So there!  And, growing up even in an assimilated Jewish household, we were often reminded “Jews do not act like that.”  In Yiddish, ‘s passt nisht.

All this is to point out what should be obvious, that even in the “ruggedly individualistic” US there are social controls over individual behavior, even in areas that should, by rights, be matters completely left to individual discretion.  In countries with a more socialist leaning (e.g. most of Western Europe) there is more social control, and in the communist world there is suffocating social control.  And while we might like to say that “that government is best which governs least,” the period of social disruption and economic dislocation we are currently experiencing in the US indicates that individualism taken to its logical extreme may lead to instability as well.

The way Torah treats the Kohanim, and by extension the entire Jewish people, the “kingdom of Kohanim,” can give us an insight into the right path for us to follow.  Kohanim are born, not made.  If your father is a Kohen and you are male, you are a Kohen.  You get the first aliyah, you get priority in leading the Grace after meals, you get to go up on the bimah and give the priestly blessings (daily in Eretz Yisrael, on holidays in the diaspora).  Of course when the Temple stood you also got to perform the Divine Service in the Temple and you received the various gifts that went to the Kohanim – gifts of grain, wine, oil, parts of most sacrificial animals, etc.  In return, you were required to maintain a certain standard of holiness – there were certain women you were forbidden to marry, and if you did marry one of them, you could be forced by the Sanhedrin to divorce her.  You were not allowed to attend funerals, except for a few close relatives.  You had to guard yourself from ritual impurity.  It’s not a gig everyone would want, but if you were a Kohen, you were locked into it, willy-nilly.  You could never resign and become just a plain old Israelite!

In other words, some areas of what we would consider very personal choice, such as choice of a spouse, were quite constrained.  Why should this be the case?

R. Hirsch explains in the above quote.  An individual is more than just an individual.  While we, especially in the West and most especially in the US, see ourselves as detached units, free to make our own choices, Torah sees each one of us as part of a greater whole.  While the Western viewpoint sees a society as a group of individuals who interact with one another according to certain rules, the Torah view gives greater prominence to the social grouping, and sees individuals as expressions, or limbs, of that group.  Thus the Kohanim are not just individuals who choose to fulfill a specific rôle, rather they are parts of an organic whole, who must fulfill their given rôle for the society to function correctly and to fulfill its purpose.

Now here is the example from physics.  Consider two pendulums side by side, both swinging away; for simplicity assume that they are the same length and therefore have the same frequency (and no, the mass of the bob doesn’t matter; that statement is the basis of General Relativity, but that’s for another parashah…).  As I have just described the situation, each pendulum will swing independently, its specific trajectory given by its specific initial conditions.  These systems are called “uncoupled.”  Now suppose we attach a small, very weak spring between the two bobs.  When the leftmost pendulum swings to the left, it pulls the other pendulum along with it – not very hard, because the spring is weak, but there is a pull nonetheless.  These two systems are called “coupled.”  It is not hard to convince yourself that there are two stable modes of vibration of the two pendulums – one where the two both go left together and then back right together, like the Rockettes.  In this case the spring doesn’t actually ever stretch – yet it is the spring’s presence that couple the two systems together.  The other stable solution is where the two pendulums vibrate in opposite directions, and the spring stretches and compresses to the maximum degree.  In the first case the vibration is at the natural frequency of the pendulums, and in the latter it is faster, due to the extra force of the spring.

The history of physics has shown that whenever two systems appear to be separate but coupled to one another, they are really two different aspects or expressions of one unified, underlying system.  For example, in the 1800’s it was discovered that the electric field and the magnetic field could interact with one another (the principle behind electromagnets and electric generators).  Later it was discovered that there was really one underlying field – the electromagnetic field – which could express itself as electricity or magnetism (or both) under different circumstances.

What Torah appears to be telling us is that all individuals in a society are very strongly coupled.  It is simply not possible for one to do “whatever one wants as long as he doesn’t hurt anyone else.”  Everything we do contributes to the moral atmosphere in which we live, and everything we do therefore affects everyone else in society.  If we are doing our part to raise the level of holiness in the society – by performing the function that our heredity, our talents, our skills, our natures have assigned us (in other words, that Gd has assigned us and given us the tools to accomplish) – then we uplift society and all the individuals in it.  If we don’t, we are “hurting someone else.”  Therefore society responds.

Torah tells us further that the ultimate reality in the cosmos is Gd.  Gd is all there is, was or ever will be, and all existences are expressions of Gd.  Just as the electric and magnetic fields are two expressions of the same underlying electromagnetic field, so all of us, Kohen, Levi, Yisrael, non-Jew, are expressions of Gd.  We may appear to be separate, but coupled individuals, but that is only on the surface.  At the depths we are united.  We therefore all have a responsibility to one another and to Gd to act appropriately, in the loving, caring, giving, holy manner Torah demands.  None of us has the option to resign.


Pirke Avot, Chapter 4

Mishnah 3

[Ben Azzai] would say: Do not scorn any person, and do not dismiss any thing, for there is nobody who does not have his time, and there is nothing that does not have its place.

The view of life that we presented above sees everyone and everything as part and parcel of one organic whole.  Each individual has a particular part to play in the evolution of that system.  In some cases, especially those of the most evil people, it may be very hard to discern what that part may be.  Yet, ben Azzai tells us, that part is there, and sooner or later that person will be necessary for the entire proper functioning of the cosmos.  The underlying reason for this is that while on the surface level that person (or thing) may appear to be separate from, and even opposed to, everything else, this is only a partial view of the situation.  On a deeper level, he (or she or it) is intimately connected to us and to everyone else.  The essence of that person or thing is the same infinity that is our own essence.  When we rise to evaluate everything in our environment in terms of our own infinite nature, we grow in love for the Creator and the creation.  Scorn will naturally be the furthest thing from our minds and our hearts.