When the rabbis divided the Torah into its 54 parshiyot, they generally arranged for each portion to begin with a unique or otherwise significant word that would in some way summarize major themes of the entire section. Such is the case for most of the portions we have studied in Leviticus — until we come to this week’s portion, Emor, which means “say.”
Say? How many times is that word used in the Torah? What is unique about that word — what could the Rabbis have been thinking?
When we look at the whole first verse of the portion, however, we see something curious: The word occurs three times in this first sentence: “And Adonai said to Moses: Say to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them.” It occurs once in the third person, twice in the second person, once in past tense, once in the imperative and once in the future. It would appear, then, that one of the reasons the rabbis began the portion with emor, “say,” was to emphasize that this was a portion about speaking.
But what kind of speech? Rashi suggests that the second use of say is a direct address that Moses is to make to Aaron’s sons, and the third is an instruction that Aaron’s sons are to speak to the next generation. This is a profound statement. It suggests that whatever the parents are told cannot rest with them, but must be carried on to their children, who will, by implication, carry the instruction forward to their children.
It may remind us of the ad for the Patek Philippe watch: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe;
you merely look after it for the next generation.” Rashi as the inspiration for a watch ad — who knew?
What is the Torah that is given to the priests to pass on to their children? That the kohanim must stay away from the dead lest they defile themselves; they may not shave the corners of their beards or make gashes in their flesh (traditionally taken, perhaps mistakenly, to rule out tattoos). They may not marry prostitutes, divorcees, or widows — only women who are virgins. Any of them with a physical defect (mum, in Hebrew) may not officiate over sacrifices in the Tabernacle, though he may eat of those sacrifices like other priests. The daughter of a priest married to a layman may not eat of these sacrifices unless she is widowed or divorced and childless. The offerings — like the offerer — must be without blemish. An animal may not be sacrificed until it has spent seven days with its mother and may not be offered on the same day as its mother. Sacrifices must be eaten on the same day they are slaughtered, lest they become spoiled.
The restrictions about disfigured priests are unsettling to modern sensibilities: If a priest’s disfigurement was seen to distract the offerer from his or her sacrifice, one could argue that there was a lesson to be learned about perceiving the image of God in any physical characteristic. The redeeming element in this passage is that the disfigured priest was not barred from the Temple precincts, but could walk about and take his share of the sacrifices for his own sustenance. He would therefore be noticed by the worshippers, who would have an opportunity to reflect on the lesson that one needed to look past the physical disability to the priestly soul, and the human soul, that lay within.
Have the kohanim followed this Emor instruction to pass these teachings on to the following generations? The laws dealing with sacrifices, of course, have become moot with the Temple destroyed, though by reading the Torah portion every year it appears we are all keeping the teaching alive. But children of kohanim who follow traditional understandings of the Torah will to this day refuse to enter a graveyard or marry a widow or a divorcee, in both cases at significant detriment to their own well-being.
The Reform movement, however, stated early on that these teachings were not to be passed on to subsequent generations, holding that preserving the sense of one’s own ties to the priesthood as a kohen or a Levite was not appropriate to a movement that did not want the Temple rebuilt and felt that the class distinctions imposed by the Tabernacle in the wilderness did not befit modern egalitarian sensibilities. Neither marriage nor graveyard restrictions have been observed by Reform Jews, nor have the instructions for trimming the corners of one’s beard. The Reform movement has been neutral about tattoos, generally frowning on them for cultural rather than for religious reasons. Even cremation, which is the extreme example of harming one’s flesh, has become more and more accepted in the Reform community.
There has, I believe, been a loss in this stance. One could argue that maintaining the distinctions of kohen, Levite and Israelite (“ordinary” Jews) could have contributed to a fuller sense of one’s own identity, tying one to generations of men and their sons and daughters who followed the prescriptions of Emor. When my family searched for a kohen to preside over a pidyon habit, a ceremony for “redemption of a firstborn girl,” none of the kohanim in our acquaintance wanted to acknowledge their priestly status by officiating — even at an “egalitarian” rite — for a firstborn daughter!
There are other aspects to this portion that do have a bearing on Reform — and all other — Jews. Chapter 23 contains the laws “God’s festival celebrations,” which the people are “enjoined to observe.” This verse, though, can also be read, “The set times of Adonai, which you shall proclaim, are holy convocations; they are My set times” — in other words, once you proclaim them, I shall observe them as well.” This verse too is preceded by a form of emor: “You shall say to them [the Israelities].” There is one Patek Philippe for the kohanim, but another, equally precious one — for all the people of Israel — that can be observed by the generations through time since it is not dependent upon a physical structure like the Temple. Included in this list are Shabbat, Pesach, the Omer period of bringing sheaves preceding Shavuot (and speaking of bringing sheaves, one should not reap the corners of one’s field — as one should not cut the corners of one’s beard — but leave them for the poor), Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Atonement, Sukkot and the eighth day after Sukkot (what came to be called Sh’mini Atzeret and Simchat Torah). The order of holidays begins in the spring with the first month, which we call Nisan.
Finally, the Israelites are instructed to bring pure olive oil, beaten, for a light to be kept burning eternally. Here is a command originally intended for the Tabernacle, throughout the priestly generations, which has transcended that limited place and been observed as an ornament in the synagogue — throughout the generations. Like a fine watch that keeps time eternally, the ner tamid has kept burning eternally, keeping light kindled for all who wish to hear the eternal word of God.