Shabbat Emor: Acting Our Age

In parashat Emor, the first words describe G-d speaking to Moshe – not unusual. But then G-d goes on to tell Moshe to speak to Aharon, who in turn is to instruct the priests, his sons and their descendants.  The parashah later will turn to the rest of us, the b’nei Yisrael, often translated “children of Israel”. It is interesting to consider in what way we are children from the perspective of Leviticus. We might see in this wording a hint of the appropriate roles of priests, and also of children (and the adults who care for them).

This week’s parashah is full of rules – some only for priests, and most of them regarding priestly things such as proper ritual. In this week’s parashah as well as some others we’ve seen in this book of Leviticus (which means “of the priests”, after all), it’s clear that the priests must hold themselves to a different standard of conduct if they are to be effective priests.

The same is true for all of us when we occupy a role. When you call me Rabbi, I offer you all that comes with that identity; when you address your Doctor by her or his title, you are implicitly asking for all the knowledge, support and ability of the profession to be brought to bear for you. There is an expectation by both sides that we will act to that standard of conduct. One reason why we are so disappointed in clergy who are caught in immorality is that they have broken an implicit contract with us. They are supposed to behave as the priests in Leviticus are told to behave.

This is not class-ism; it is delegation of responsibility. The ancient Israelite farmer did not know, and probably was not interested in studying up on, the intricacies of proper sacrificial ritual, and expected the local village Levites to be there to consult, remind, and guide. Similarly, I don’t have the knowledge my Doctor has, nor do I wish to try to glean on the Internet what a professional health care provider has spent years or decades learning. That is knowledge I want to be able to access as I need it, and I want to be able to trust the implicit partnership.

It’s true of being a parent as well. Parents are, in a way, their children’s priests, as well as life coaches and health care guides. Parents are mature humans, who know many things about life that they must guide children toward learning. Children – who won’t even have fully functioning brains until they are 20! – are not adults; they have no interest in, nor are they physically capable of, making the right decisions for themselves about how to eat right, become moral agents, or stand before G-d. Expecting them to make the best choices for themselves when they are children in any of these areas is abdication of adult responsibility.

There’s a traditional blessing that parents may recite on the day when a child is called to the Torah as a bar or bat mitzvah: Barukh sheh-p’tarani m’ansho shel zeh, “Thank G-d that I am relieved of this one’s punishment”. It reminds us that until children reach the ages of ethical awareness, they are not held responsible for their behavior – it reflects on the their parent, as does the punishment for any sin they commit. Children can’t be held responsible for sin or mitzvah. They are still in Eden. We know the rocky path that leads beyond, and we have to step in, and offer guidance.

The priestly standard we must strive to maintain, all of us who are parents and teachers and role models for children, is a responsibility delegated to us simply by the place in which we find ourselves. To be part of a community of people who care for each other is to keep in mind that we are always being watched by those younger than us, as well as by adults who see us as knowledgeable (you’d be surprised by who thinks you know more than they do). It doesn’t mean we have to actually know more than a child does; by definition, maturity offers guidance to immaturity. Just like the ancient Israelite farmer, all we need to know is how to seek out knowledge. And just like the ancient Israelite priest, we are called upon to remember that we are not children ourselves, nor does it help them when we withhold our adult experience and guidance from them.

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