Shabbat Emor: Against the Cruelty

In this second year of the Triennial Cycle of Torah reading, our congregation, like many others throughout the Jewish world, begins to read not at the beginning of parashat Emor but with chapter 22, verse 17. This is about one-third of the way in, since the Triennial Cycle makes its way through one third of each parashah each year. And in chapter 22 and following, we find a collection of mitzvot that do not seem to us to cohere in any logical way – according to our modern, Greek-based logic, that is. The ancient Hebrew mindset, it has been suggested, was more analogical than ours. In its own way it is just as systematic, even though our eyes aren’t used to the way this system works.
Strange juxtapositions occur. Consider this mitzvah that appears in the middle of a series addressing the sacrificial system:
וַיְדַבֵּר ה’, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. HaShem spoke to Moses, saying:
שׁוֹר אוֹ כֶשֶׂב אוֹ-עֵז כִּי יִוָּלֵד, וְהָיָה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תַּחַת אִמּוֹ; וּמִיּוֹם הַשְּׁמִינִי, וָהָלְאָה, יֵרָצֶה, לְקָרְבַּן אִשֶּׁה לה’. When a calf, lamb, or kid is born, it shall be seven days with its mother; only from the eighth day on is it acceptable as an offering to HaShem.
וְשׁוֹר, אוֹ שֶׂה אתוֹ וְאֶת-בְּנוֹ, לֹא תִשְׁחֲטוּ בְּיוֹם אֶחָד. Whether it be cow or ewe, you shall not kill it and its young both in one day. (VaYikra 22.26-28)
The most interesting thing about this text is the way in which different commentators in different times, living in different cultures with different assumptions and expectations, understand the meaning of this mitzvah. For Maimonides, a physician and Rabbi living during the 12th century flourishing of philosophy and science in Al-Andalus, the meaning is clearly about the feelings of animals:
The Torah wished to choose the most humane method of killing and forbade cruel practices such as strangulation, cutting a limb, or slaughtering the mother and young on the same day, in order to preclude the slaying of the young in the presence of its mother, since this involves great cruelty. (Guide for the Perplexed)
This interpretation was not accepted by Nakhmanides, who lived at about the same time, but in Christian-controlled Aragon:
The reason for the prohibition of slaying the mother and young on the same day…is to eradicate cruelty and pitilessness from the human heart, not that HaShem has mercy on the animal. Were that the case, HaShem would have forbidden eating animals completely. The real reason is to cultivate in us the quality of mercy…since cruelty is contagious. (cited in Leibowitz Studies in VaYikra)
The common denominator is the ubiquity of human cruelty. This mitzvah is meant to protect domesticated animals which are mother and child from the cruelty inherent in being killed on the same day. This was a well-known prohibition in ancient Israel, and from that day to this the halakhic category of tzaar baaley hayim – “the pain of living things” has developed as all Jewish sacred obligations do, to include such modern mitzvot as feeding the family pet before you yourself eat.
Would that we treated each other as thoughtfully! In the ancient text Eikha Rabbati some ancient anonymous author looks around at the world and makes the painful point.
“G*d of the Universe! You wrote in Your Torah: whether cow or ewe, do not kill mother and young in the same day.” But behold, they have murdered children and their mothers in countless number, yet you are silent!” – Ekha Rabbati
The cruelty inherent in killing is everywhere. It is in the slaughterhouse where cows are butchered for human consumption and in the bombings where whole families die. The wisdom of our tradition urges us to consider the connections, and to realize that even as one small kindness adds to the good in the world, each small cruelty inures us to greater and greater horrors.
When we immerse ourselves in our ancient and modern sources of traditional wisdom, and we experience the multiplicity of thoughtful teachings in which our perspectives too find a home, we come to realize that our ancestors knew no less cruelty than did we, even as we know the same silence that pained them.
Nothing, no G*d on high nor any other source of power beyond us, is going to save us from ourselves, as Carl Sagan famously said. Jews know that waiting around for G*d to save us is not the Jewish way; the work of making the Presence of G*d real and loud in the world is what we must do, and it begins with each mother and child – each being among us, after all, is born of a mother. Disagree as we will on the why, or the best way to understand the what, if we each determine to stand against it in our every small act, perhaps our kindness will be contagious, and the cruelty of our time will be just a little less virulent.
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Shabbat Emor: With All Your Heart

Nobody sees a flower really; 

it is so small. 

We haven’t time, 

and to see takes time – 

like to have a friend takes time.

  – Georgia O’Keefe

Parashat Emor begins with a series of commands regarding the priests and their behavior: lo y’tama’ b’amav, they shall “not become defiled among their people”. (Lev. 21.1) Priests, who are set up as an elite among the people, must live up to the expectations of the position. This is a very ancient idea and still so relevant: when people occupy positions of high authority, we expect them to behave accordingly, and by that we mean ethically – and we are especially disappointed in them when they do not.

There’s an ethical dilemma, though, in that expectation: we who are not in that high position might come to see our own behavior as less significant. We might even say that it’s no big deal if we break a law, compared to if the priest/king/president/mayor does. 

Jewish tradition teaches differently. When the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire, the Rabbis sought ways to keep our religious (which includes ethical) traditions relevant even without the institutions they had been based upon and grew from. Jewish teaching emphasizes that each of us can defile not only ourselves, but our people, when we act unethically. It takes the heart right out of the community and slowly but surely, that community declines into cynicism. 

No – rather than give up the institutions that support our acts and teachings, they brilliantly interpreted them:

No more sacrifices? the Rabbis taught that G*d welcomed the “service of the heart”, and that our obedience to the ethical teachings of our tradition would be just as acceptable an offering – as a gift of thanksgiving for the gift of life, or as an offering of atonement.

No more Temple altar? our tables in our homes shall become our altar, they said, and each of our homes a mikdash me’at, a “small sanctuary”. Our homes are to echo and reinforce our ethics.

No more priests? the Rabbis pointed out, G*d declares in the Torah that “you shall all be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy people.” (Ex.19.6) Without a central Jewish institution, it was – and is – up to each of us to maintain the ethical standards that were to be upheld by the priests.

It is clear that we are to see the ethical commands of Judaism as incumbent upon us all equally. And these mitzvot are that which will keep us from becoming “defiled among the people”. But how to keep track of all the specifics in the way we are meant to behave, not only judging others but ourselves, in a life so full of distraction? How to, as the familiar mitzvah puts it, follow the path “with all your heart”?

The text of parashat Emor itself offers us a way to do just that: “you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete” (Lev. 23.15) Jewish tradition has developed this into an ethic of counting our days – all our days, not just these 49 between Pesakh and Shavuot. But these 7 weeks have become for us a time to deepen whatever practice we have for noticing our days, for not letting them slip by completely unexamined. When we take time each day to consider our day, we see them, and the days themselves become fuller for us, richer – and we are more able to be conscious ethical actors in our lives, rather than helplessly pulled from place to place, commitment to commitment. 

Then we are more able to act with all the heart. And that is what makes each day, and each week, “complete” in the sense of the Torah’s phrase.

shabbat Emor: the price of disrespect

Parashat Emor includes, coincidentally, the mitzvah (command) of Sefirat haOmer, the counting of the omer (a sheaf of barley). The original idea is probably agricultural: during the ongoing barley harvest, bringing a sheaf from each day’s harvest for a formal count may have been some kind of ritual effort to keep the harvest abundant. It is true that we sometimes delight in counting out or otherwise measuring that which we are excited about, or care deeply about.

Today, erev Shabbat, is the 34th day of the Omer; yesterday was the 33rd, which is a minor holy day known by a name derived from the count: Lag BaOmer literally means “33 of the omer”. (Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, and so every Hebrew number can also be pronounced. Thus the names of the holy days Tisha b’Av, the 9th of Av, and Tu b’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat.)

  וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה:  שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה

Count for yourself from the day after the day of rest, from the day that you brought the omer to wave; seven complete weeks

  עַד מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת הַשְּׁבִיעִת, תִּסְפְּרוּ חֲמִשִּׁים יוֹם; וְהִקְרַבְתֶּם מִנְחָה חֲדָשָׁה, לַיהוָה

until the morrow after the seventh week, count off fifty days; and then present a new meal offering unto HaShem. (Lev 23.15-16)

Lag baOmer, the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, marks the end of the period of semi-mourning which characterizes the first 32 days of the counting period. Why should the first 32 days after the Pesakh Seder be a somber time, when by traditional minhag weddings are not celebrated, beards are not cut, and parties and dancing are considered inappropriate?

The traditional explanation is that during this time period, long ago in Israel, 24,000 students of the celebrated Rabbi Akiba died of plague. The Talmud does not stop with the story, though – it goes on to give a reason:

“Rabbi Akiva had twenty-four thousand students and all of them died in one period of time because they did not treat each other with respect. It is taught that they all died between Passover and Shavuot, and that they all suffered bitter deaths” (TalmudYevamot 62b). 

It may seem outrageous that so many would die as a result of being disrespectful, but consider the ancient teaching that “because of baseless hatred, the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from our land”. (Talmud Yoma 9a) Much of what happens to us, insists our Jewish sources of learning, has to do with our morality. Certainly the prophets would agree. After all, it’s not as if we are asserting that if we behave badly, a giant hand will appear from heaven and punish us in some way; the prophets insist that, rather like losing one’s kingdom for the want of a horseshoe nail, the integrity of our world depends upon apparently small, small things. After all, we are taught that the entire world does rely upon three things: study, internalization of that which is learned, and acting with kindness at all times – TorahAvodah, and Gemilut Hasadim.

Whatever the source of sadness that echoes through the Jewish calendar at this time of year, it is real. The traditional minhagim restricting joy during these 33 days (it lets up after Lag BaOmer) are a haunting reminder of a grief that is no longer remembered directly. Like a yahrzeit, it comes yearly to remind us that we have mourned, as a people, the consequences of immoral behavior toward each other. 

On this Shabbat, consider the destructive consequences of your smallest acts of disrespect toward others – your colleagues, friends, children, parents, strangers – and seek to replace them with kindness. May we all become more mindful of the power we wield.

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.