Table for Five: Emor
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
He shall not go in where there is any dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother.
Shaindy Jacobson, Director, Rosh Chodesh Society (JLI)
Several days before Pesach, my sister, a Chabad Rebbetzin in Norfolk, VA, was contacted by the local hospital: a Jewish woman had passed away with no next of kin – no one in the world to see her properly laid to rest. With the COVID-19 pandemic dangerously spreading, the city’s elderly Chevra Kadisha members were unable to safely perform the Jewish tradition of tahara, the washing and purifying of the deceased, the task fell to her. Taking precautionary measures – and having never done this before, hastily educating herself – she merited to perform chesed shel emet, the highest form of kindness toward another Jew.
What will remain forever etched in my mind are my sister’s sobs as she recounted the following. “When I completed the tahara I stood before this woman, G-d’s holy soul, and begged her to forgive me if there was anything I did that could have been done more honorably… As I said my silent good-bye I thanked her for the opportunity of preparing a met mitzvah, one who has died without anyone to attend to her burial, to travel home in purity to greet her Maker.”
Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator teaches that while the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, cannot defile himself for anyone at all, even his parents, he is permitted to do so for a met mitzvah.
As Jews, we do not just study Torah, we live Torah. This verse could not have been shared with me at a more opportune time. My sister lived it, and through her, we are too.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, Professor of Talmud, Yeshiva University
To this day, meeting Ernest Hemingway remains one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life. As a newly ordained rabbi, celebrating together with two colleagues by traveling to pre-Castro Cuba, we somehow miraculously managed to talk our way into a visit with this world-renowned literary giant.
He admitted he had never had a conversation with rabbis. He welcomed this opportunity to share with us something he had come to realize about the major religions. Almost all, he concluded, primarily emphasized death – this world as preparation for a promised hereafter. From what I know about Judaism, he told us, it is the one religion which stresses human obligations to perfecting this world, to bringing heaven to earth rather than negating earth for heaven.
Hemingway recognized what all too many Jews do not understand. Judaism is a religion of life; “choose life” the Bible repeatedly reminds us.
I asked Hemingway if I might teach him something that powerfully adds to his insight. I told him of the biblical law which prohibits the kohanim, or the members of the Jewish priesthood as well as the high priest himself, from coming into any contact with the dead. Rabbinic commentators suggest the reason: the priestly class, the rabbis of old, needed to view their primary function as concern with life rather than obsession with death.
And that was the first as well as the last time in my rabbinic career that a Nobel prize winner congratulated me for a profoundly beautiful dvar Torah!
Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Am
To lead is to serve; and to lead is to lose. The choice to lead (or the societal structures that force one to) brings fulfillment–but always at personal cost. This truth jumps off the screen in the Netflix series “The Crown.” It leaps out of my own personal narrative. And it is embedded within the Torah’s narrative and law. Moshe’s costly striking of the rock immediately follows his constituents’ interrupting his mourning Miriam by making their demands an emergency. In our verse, God levies a nearly intolerable personal burden on the High Priest–to tend to sacred needs precludes attending to the most tender of personal needs. In order to retain sacral purity, the Kohen Gadol may not even be present for a parent’s burial (the pain of which prohibition has never been more acutely understood than in the COVID era).
Many commentators note the redundancy of specifying the high priest’s parents after mentioning “all dead bodies.” On one hand, the specific inclusion amplifies the emotional weight of the rule. “All dead bodies.” You mean, not even for my father and mother? “No. Not even for them.” And yet Rashi adds that specifying the parents hints at an exception: for a met mitzvah, an unattended, anonymous corpse, even the High Priest may defile himself in order to ensure a dignified burial. This reminds us of our most central religious duty, incumbent on priest and layperson alike: to serve the greater good by ensuring the dignity of all. Even when it hurts.
Miriam Melanie Mill Esq., President, Tzaddik Foundation
The Torah enjoins us to be pro-life. Spiritual defilement – tumah – usually exists in a situation where life, or even potential of life, is lacking. We are usually enjoined to avoid this tumah “like the plague” yet we are also commanded how to respectfully take care of the dead body of a Jew, though it carries the strongest tumah of all. Therefore, we bury our dead and work in hospitals where we may come in contact with the dead.
I think one of the saddest situations I have heard about in the corona pandemic is that of children begging to speak to a dying parent in the hospital because they can’t be admitted. We know it’s for their protection as well as for all of society, yet we sense the tragedy, while respecting the self-sacrifice of those working in such environments.
We got a taste of what a practically invisible virus can do to our physical system and how it can affect everyone; we now can maybe understand what tumah can do to our spiritual system.
The Kohen Gadol is not a private citizen. His main role is to find favor for us with the Holy One, blessed be He. The High Priest’s selfless service requires him to always be in a state of ritual purity. It may be restricting but rewarding. Obviously his parents know this and are proud of their son and wouldn’t want to deprive him of his station. All Israel must be in awe of his commitment and self-sacrifice.
Rabbi Tal Sessler, Sephardic Temple
In her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, author Bronnie Ware recounts that the most common regret people articulate on their deathbed is: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Sadly, many of us cede our existential autonomy, and soulfully defile ourselves, by living “the lives of others.”
We exercise what Sartre called “bad faith,” by heeding the voice of our parents, rather than the sacred murmur of our untarnished inner core. To do so, implies the Torah here homiletically, is tantamount to defiling our own unique spiritual vocation in life. We marry the wrong person, pursue the wrong career, endorse the wrong values, when we existentially surrender to the exigencies and expectations of others. Rashi explains that the Fifth Commandment, revering one’s parents, precedes the Fourth Commandment, Shabbat, in Parshat Kedoshim to stress that we do not heed our parents if they tell us to violate Shabbat.
In other words, even our parents lack the moral mandate to coerce us into desecrating the Sabbath, or undermine our authentic spiritual path.
The Torah sees us as a nation of leaders, “A Kingdom of Kohanim.”
Leaders carve out their own existential path. They love and respect their parents, but they cede not their existential autonomy to them, or to any other person for that matter. Defile yourself not, beseeches us the Torah, by living a life that other people expect you to live.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.
Read more at the Jewish Journal.