Insight on the Weekly Torah Reading: Emor

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Holiness in Perspective

By Michael Chessen

     In general terms, we could view the book of Leviticus as the reflected inversion of the book of Genesis. Genesis is wholly made up of historical narrative which carries examples of moral and ethical behavior and precedes the formal giving of the Torah by "laying groundwork" for a small number of halachic commandments. Leviticus, for its part, almost wholly concerns itself with prescribing commandments or conditions for serving God in holiness, and offers but two historical narratives, one of which occurs in this week's reading, Emor.

     As in the earlier story of the death of Aaron's sons, Emor's narrative also involves the unfortunate death of a young man and is shrouded in a cloud of mystery which is dispelled only with the help of the midrash and commentaries. Whereas the young man in question, identified only by his lineage, did commit a capitol offense, the Torah is not at all wont to report the administration of capital punishment. In fact, the Torah's stipulations for capitol punishment are so restrictive that in the time of the Second Temple, the administration of a single death sentence in a period of seventy years was considered excessive.

     The midrash informs us that the young "son of an Egyptian man" was none other than the son of the Egyptian who Moses killed for torturing a Hebrew slave. Before Moses did so, he looked around and saw that there was "no man". Our simple understanding of this is that Moses was making sure that "the coast was clear", but as the commentators point out, Moses prophetically saw that no worthy individual was potentially due to issue forth from this Egyptian. True enough, his son, unwittingly conceived by the wife of the tortured slave, "goes out" in our Torah reading, looking to cause strife. He subsequently blasphemes God by uttering the same ineffable name which Moses had uttered in order to kill his father.

     As difficult as this story may appear to be, it dramatically illustrates both the specific principle that "the acts of fathers are a sign for sons" as well as the general role that education plays in the spiritual health and vitality of the Jewish people. In addition, we need to view the short narratives of Leviticus within their proper context. Whereas the few examples of commandments from Genesis come to provide us with practical and tangible links to the holiness of the patriarchs and matriarchs, the short narratives of Leviticus demonstrate the need to approach the service of God with our holy ancestors' sense of balance and perspective.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom!

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