Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Emor

Way back in Exodus (19:5-6), we read that in living holy lives, we are a mamlechet kohanim … a kingdom of priests. Kohen is the Hebrew word for priest (singular version of Kohanim), and if the text of Exodus is correct, it applies to all people of faith. All Israel came forth from Egypt. Given the rest of the lineages provided in Torah, and the history of dispersion, the Biblical concept of Israel speaks to people of faith in every corner of the Earth. We are all Kohanim.

We then read this week’s portion, and it seems to set the role and rules for a Kohen apart from the rest of the people. So, Torah tells us that we are all Kohanim. Torah also tells us that Kohanim have special rules … separate from the rest of the people. Torah also tells us that the Kohanim are the special descendants from Aaron (Moses’ brother). What gives?

One of the great principles applied to Torah study is to remember that some sections of text seem intentionally arrogant and hurtful. The same Rabbinical generation who finished and published the Torah text also told us that in these places that seem so difficult, the Torah intentionally screams at us to argue with it … it wants to shock us into a debate. We walk through Exodus believing that we are all priests. We get to Leviticus, and a small group decides that they are “More Priestly” and more important than any others. The satire built into the story demonstrates a pomposity that should be difficult for us to swallow. The Levitical Kohen must wear all pure white, as it slaughters and butchers animals on an altar … spraying the animals blood in all directions. How long does the tunic remain pure white through this process, and is this proof that bleach was a known commodity? The Levitical Priest must have no personal defect to be allowed at the altar. The Hebrew word “Moom” means undefined physical defect. The same word is used to disqualify an animal from sacrifice. Now, many defects are only internal, and one cannot know whether a defective animal is being offered until it is too late … the Priest already slaughtered it. The punishment for offering a defective animal on the altar is death. Likewise, a corkscrew colon, plaque in the arteries, or even a deviated septum would render a priest unfit for service. Of course, we all have these defects. The text makes it impossible to be sure that a perfect priest brings a perfect offering. The list of “qualifications” goes from bad to worse. For example … if the child of a priest commits adultery, it disqualifies him as the priest, and the child gets burned on the altar (21:9). All of this is social commentary, at its finest.

The text screams at us that people abuse power under the guise of holiness. They commit the most horrific of blasphemes wearing the shiniest of jewelry and “purest” of clothes. This is not new; it was the priestly class that caused the Maccabian rebellion and the split within our people bringing the rabbinic class (Pharisees) to separate from the corruption of the altar. This abuse fills our airwaves influences our political process, and divides our communities … and even our families. 

People will ignore the command designating everyone equal partners in faith (priesthood or holiness) and, instead, glom on to the notion that some may be Godly and others only heathen. They willingly buy into the ungodliness of discrimination, without even realizing that the very literal texts disqualify them from the very status they want to bar from others. We all share in having human defects. On risk of death, no animal can be safely offered on the altar. We are, however, all equally priests. Torah’s “authors” intended for us to respect each other’s holiness (priestliness). We have to rethink the way in which we see each other, for in the eyes of faith … there can never be an “other.” None can be holy unless we understand that each of us is holy. Shabbat Shalom.