Parshat Emor 5779

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The Kohen was the priest- educator during the biblical and Temple periods. The very first – and unique – commandment concerning him is that he not defile himself by contact with the dead.

This is an especially telling limitation when we remember that the primary responsibility of priests of all religions is to aid their adherents to “get to the other world.” In effect, the Torah is teaching us that our religious leadership must deal with the living and not the dead.


Second, the high priest (kohen gadol ) wore a head-plate upon which was written “holy unto God” and a breast-plate upon which were engraved the 12 tribes of Israel.

I believe that the symbolism is quite clear: The religious leader must dedicate his mind to the divine and his heart to his people; his thoughts, plans and machinations must always be purely in line with the God-endowed principles of ethical conduct, and his feelings must be informed with love, concern and commitment to the welfare of each and every Jew. His primary task must be not so much to elevate himself to God as it is to bring God to his people; and the unique characteristics of each of the 12 tribes remind him that there are at least 12 different gates through which the divine can be sought after and encountered.


Third, the prophet Ezekiel (44:24) adds a phrase which we read in the haftara, but which is based on many biblical verses: “And my directions (torot) and my statutes, all of my festivals, shall they guard (yishmor).”

The Bible as well as our liturgy is replete with the necessity to “guard” the Torah and its commandments. To be sure, the Torah may be interpreted and applied within the accepted rules of explication, but only by those qualified to do so and only in accordance with its own rules and regulations.

The guardians who do receive payment (shomrei sakhar) have a heightened responsibility in Jewish civil law: not only are they culpable of willful neglect, but they are also culpable if the object in their custody is lost or stolen.

Continuing our analogy to Torah, a “professional” Jewish leader cannot escape the tragic truth that our Torah is being lost to countless Jews who have never ever been exposed to the rich treasures of their tradition. It is incumbent upon the guardians of Torah to prove the falseness of such claims and to restore the pure traditions to their rightful owners.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

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