Skip to content

Parashat Emor 5776 — 05/21/2016

Parashat Emor 5776 — 05/21/2016

Vayikra 21:1-24:23

One of the rules laid out in our parashah, which goes against the grain of our “politically correct” society, is that only a perfect offering may be offered to Gd in the Temple, and the officiating priest must also be without blemish. In fact, everything associated with the Temple service must be perfect – the Altar, the building itself, the service vessels must all be without blemish, just like the offerings and the priests. This means without physical blemishes. Now we can understand that the physical objects we use must be without physical blemishes, but what about the priests? Isn’t the state of his soul much more important than the state of his body?

R. Steinsaltz takes another approach:

In detailing the laws of blemished animals, the Torah says, “That which is crushed or mangled, torn or cut, you shall not offer to Gd, neither shall you do thus in your land” (22:24). There are people whose whole approach to religious life is to be crushed and mangled, torn and cut. These people feel that the more they are downtrodden and oppressed, the more exalted and holy they become, and the greater their ability becomes to draw close to Gd. In the above verse, Gd says that the opposite is true; not only should such an animal not be offered to Gd, but “neither shall you do thus in your land.” Gd does not want the crushed and mangled – neither inside nor outside.

There appears to be an opposite view in Torah, that having a “broken heart” is a very positive thing, as in (Ps 51:19): a heart broken and crushed, O Lord, You will not scorn, or (Isaiah 57:15) I am with the contrite and lowly of spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite. The difference is that:

A broken heart is a person’s self-evaluation, in relation to others and in relation to Gd, and the result is the feeling that there is still much to accomplish. … “Crushed and mangled” is someone who suppresses his drives – and along with them his ambition and creativity – which sometimes happens because of misplaced piety.

What we appear to have here is a conflict between the extremely positive and valuable trait of humility, and a kind of self-destructive asceticism. In order to approach Gd, we of course have to remove the “I” (that is, our ego!) from the equation. If we are full of ourselves, we don’t leave any room for Gd; as the Kotzker Rebbe famously remarked, “Where is Gd? Wherever we allow Him to be!” On the other hand, we dare not kill our ego altogether, for then who would it be who is coming close to Gd? Bupkis! Rather, it seems that what Torah is telling us is that we have to approach Gd at once with the full force of our personality, our individuality, intact, yet somehow negated as well. We cannot approach Gd full of the ego, yet without some trace of our ego left, there is nobody to approach Gd.

I would like to digress a bit and take the ascetic side for a minute. The idea behind asceticism is that the body is a covering over the soul and blocks the soul’s ability to experience the transcendent. Therefore, the theory is that weakening the body as if “thins out” this covering, the soul will be less impeded. There is definitely something to this theory. For 16 years I had the privilege of caring for a remarkable lady who had chronic-progressive MS. As I watched her condition progress, it appeared that as her body weakened, her spirit got stronger. In the last several months of her life, as she lost weight and physical vitality, the radiance that came from inside her was almost literally blinding, as the “covering” over her soul got thinner and thinner. Now the problem with relying on this as an actual tactic for spiritual growth is that, at least in this case, it led directly to this lady’s death. In her case of course, it was not a chosen path, but if one does have a choice, this does not seem to be a wise one.

Instead of weakening the body in order to achieve spiritual growth, the Torah actually commands us to strengthen the body! This fits in with the Jewish approach to the sometimes uncomfortable union of body and soul that is the human being. The idea is that the body must be subjugated to the soul, to provide the soul a vehicle by which it can do its work in creation. But in order to be a suitable vehicle for the soul, the body must remain strong. The soul is compared to a rider on a horse (the body). The rider certainly needs to remain on top of the horse, reins firmly in hand. But this must be accomplished by strengthening the rider, not by weakening the horse! When Gd created humanity, the word used in Hebrew is vayitzer. Unusually, it is spelled with a double yod where normally one would do. Our Sages tell us that this is to indicate that we are to serve Gd with both our yetzer hatov (inclination to do good) and our yetzer hara (inclination to do evil, associated with bodily desires, particularly of the forbidden variety).

There is, of course, a danger to this approach:

An ox that has two broken legs and limps is a lot less dangerous than a big, healthy ox. As a result, it may seem that this limping ox is more of a tzaddik [righteous one]; he is physically unable to commit the same acts of violence of which his healthier counterpart is capable. … Why should such a tzaddik of an ox not be brought as a korban [offering]? But this is twisted thinking: Is this ox really an appropriate gift for Gd?

Here we see what Gd wants and what He does not want. He wants things that are physically sound, with all the risks that this entails. … Gd is willing to take the risk.

I do not think that Gd created the universe just to destroy it, or to command us to destroy it. He did not tell us that it is evil or has to be suppressed. Instead, He commanded us to make it holy – to unfold the value of wholeness that resides at the basis of creation, in every particle of creation. The Romans had an expression for this: mens sana in corpore sano – a sound mind in a sound body. This sounds like the right approach to me!

Haftarah: Yechezkel 44:15-31

The haftarah repeats and amplifies many of the laws of the kohanim that keep them separate and at a higher level of holiness than the average Israelite. The kohanim were to serve in the sacred precincts, hence they were required to maintain a higher level of personal sanctity. The Torah portion tells us what happens if this sanctity is not maintained – the result is often death of the offender. We can understand why: the closer we are to Gd, the stronger is the flow of Divine energy, and the stronger must the vessel be to contain this energy and to channel it properly. Something which has a blemish has a weak spot where it can be broken – sometimes the tiniest crack will begin to spread under pressure, until there is a complete rupture. Perhaps this is another reason why the Torah insists on both priests and offerings’ being without blemish.