Sermons and Parsha'iot                            Parshat Emor:  Leviticus 21:1-24:33

This week's parasha begins with God telling Moses "Emor el ha kohanim" ("Speak to the priests,") to instruct them about the special rules that they must obey. For example, a kohain may not come into contact with a dead person - unless that person was an immediate relative. And the Torah recognizes only six kinds of immediate relationship: a father, mother, brother, unmarried sister, son, daughter. (Not even uncles, aunts, or grandparents make the list, and the High Priest was not permitted to mourn even his own parents!) The Torah then prohibits a kohain from marrying a divorced woman (the High Priest was not even permitted to marry a widow). The chapter ends with a list of physical defects which disqualify a priest or High Priest from performing any sacral function.

The second part of the parasha lists the major holidays and festivals of the Jewish calendar and how they are to be observed: Shabbat - a day of complete rest; the Passover offering and the Lord's Feast of Unleavened Bread; the First Sheaf (of barley); the Counting of the Omer; the celebration of Seven Weeks (i.e., Shavu'ot); a Day of Remembering to be commemorated with loud blasts (i.e., Rosh Hashannah), the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Booths. The chapter also commands us to leave the corners of our fields unharvested to allow the poor and the stranger to find food there.

The third part of the parasha contains commandments to Aaron regarding things that should take place at the Tent of Meeting: He must light the lamps with clear olive oil brought by the people, as well as place twelve loaves of bread each Shabbat on a table there as an offering to God. Punishments are described for those who kill or maim people or beasts and for those who take God's name in vain. 

Commentary

Our rabbis noted that the Torarh mentions six specific relations for which a priest may ritually defile himself. By extension, they reasoned that mourning for these specific relatives is a commandment that applies to all of us. (The rabbis also added husbands and wives to the list). 

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Read 23:4-8 carefully. The text seems to be talking about two separate holidays: the Passover offering and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Some scholars believe that originally these two festivals were separate holidays from different Hebrew cultures which were finally combined. What do you think? 

  2. The Feast of Seven Weeks is mentioned here. What aspect of that holiday (known today as Shavu'ot) is not mentioned in the text? 

  3. What holiday is described in 23:24? What surprises you about this one-verse description? Which holiday is described in the most detail? Why? 

  4. Leviticus 24:19-20 states "If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done, so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth..." Give some examples of what you think this means.

    You may be surprised to know that our Sages did not interpret this as the right to retaliate by physically hurting people who physically hurt others. The Rabbis decided that this passage referred to monetary compensation for injuries. Although they knew that actual loss could not be recovered, money paid to the injured person could pay for medical care and help ease the time that it would take for recovery or readjustment from the injury. Do you think that being paid for injuries is a fair way to resolve fights? Why or why not? Do you think that the amount of money paid to the injured person should change if the injury was accidentally or deliberately caused? Why or why not? If you were asked, how would you decide how much to "charge" for an injury? 

  5. "The priest . is exalted above his fellows" (Leviticus 21:10) and "No man... who has a defect shall be qualified to make offerings to God" (Leviticus 21:21) imply that the kohanim, who were the leaders of the people, needed to be different and act in a manner that set them apart from everyone else.

    Think about our national, political and religious leaders today. What gives leaders status in our societies today? Does one have to born with special personal qualities, or can one develop them? Do we hold our leaders to different standards than we do other people? Why do you think that there was a restriction about people with defects? Can a physical defect really affect someone's ability to lead? Name some leaders who have led effectively despite their handicaps. (Here's the first one: Moses. He had a speech impediment, a bad temper, and was a reluctant leader!) Can leaders who have defects in their character or who do not act in a manner that is considered morally proper still be effective leaders? Why or why not? 

  6. This section of Parshat Emor carefully explains the observance of PesakhShavu'ot and Sukkot. Why would a reminder of the need to leave corners of the fields untouched for the poor be inserted here? What does this kind of action have to do with these holidays?

    The Torah mentions the commandments concerning the poor several times. In your opinion, why are these commandments repeated? What do we learn about the commandments and about ourselves from reading and hearing the instructions several times? Most of us live in cities or in suburbs. We can't leave the corners of our fields for the poor, and even if we could, the poor may not be around to collect the food. What could we do for the poor instead? What corners or gleanings do we have that we could leave untouched 

  7. Parshat Emor ends with a story about a man who got into an argument and took God's name in vain. It doesn't tell us the man's name, but it does tell who his parents were - specifically mentioning his mother by name. Given that so few women are mentioned in the Torah text, why might the blasphemer's mother's name be important? How does what you do or say reflect on your parents? Can you see any connection between commandment not to takes God's name in vain and the commandment to honor your father and mother?