This week’s “Shabbat Shalom” column has been sponsored by the Charif family of Sydney, Australia, in honour of the Bat Mitzvah of their daughter, SHIRA, on Sunday 4 Iyar.
Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)
Efrat, Israel – “They shall direct My people as to what is sacred and what is mundane; they shall inform them as to what is ritually impure and what is pure….My teachings and My statutes amongst all of My festivals they shall preserve and My Sabbaths they shall sanctify” (Ezekiel 44:23-24)
What is the most important quality for a religious leader – a sharp mind or a sensitive heart, a commitment to study or a commitment to loving-kindness?
This week’s Biblical reading of Emor opens with the laws applying to the Kohen-Priests, the religious, ritual leaders of Israel. The prophetic reading from the Book of Ezekiel provides the quintessential leadership role played by the Kohanim:
To direct the Jewish people in areas of the sacred and mundane, the ritually pure and impure, the teachings and the statutes, the details of the festivals and the prohibitions of the Sabbath, one must become expert in Jewish law and ritual. After all, we are called the people of the Book because our leaders must dedicate themselves to what is written in our great books, the Bible, Talmudic literature, its commentaries and responsa, as well as to our Codes of Law.
Hence, one of the greatest transgressions a Jew can commit is “bitul zman“, wasting or nullifying time. Conversely, one of the greatest accolades the Talmud can bestow upon anyone is that “their mouth never ceased from studying” (lo pasik pumey mi’girsa). Haredi newspapers and magazines fulsomely praised Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv ztz”l, the most respected haredi decisor of the last decade by quoting his family: his wife reported that she would tear her hair out of her head before attempting to separate him from his holy books, no matter the seriousness of the family problem, and his daughter recounted that none of his children would simply converse with their father, because that would interrupt him from his studies. It was only at dusk on Shabbat afternoons, when his library was too dark to allow him to see the small print, that the pious sage would go for a walk and allow one of the children in turn to accompany him. Even then, the sage was hardly free for open discussion; he couldn’t be disturbed from his thoughts of Torah, and the children would have to content themselves with walking at his side and basking in his glory as the gadol hador, the greatest sage of the generation.
Despite all of this, however, the Talmud itself recounts a frightening tale which would question our previous citations:
“Rabbi Rachumi would return home (from the Talmudical Academy wherein he was studying for a period of years) every Erev Yom Kippur. Once (on the day before Yom Kippur) he became absorbed in study. His wife was anxiously expecting his arrival, ‘Now he is coming, now he is coming’, she said, but he did not come. She became upset and a tear descended from her eye. He (Rabbi Rachumi whose name ironically means “man of mercy”) was sitting on the roof (apparently engrossed in his books). The roof fell in underneath him and he died (apparently in punishment-B.T. Ketubot 62a).
There are other Biblical and Talmudic statements which would strengthen the need for humane sensitivity as a critical sub-text for any halakhic decision. For example, the Biblical definition of God’s ways and God’s glory-insofar as these concepts may be at all understandable to mortals- is “A God of love, a God of Love, a compassionate, powerful One who gives grace freely, Is long-suffering, filled with loving-kindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6, and this passage, as explained by the Mekhilta, is the very source for the oral law and way it is to be applied). The Talmud therefore declares, “He who has Torah learning without good deeds is as if he is bereft of God” (B.T. Avodah Zara 17b)
Our response literature, from Rabbi Moshe Isserles to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is replete with amazing examples proving the importance of humane compassion as an over-riding factor in halakhic decision making.
Haim Grade, in his moving novel “Rabbis and Wives”, tells of a great Torah scholar known as the “porush” (the separated one) of Vilna, who refused to answer halakhic questions. This self-imposed “exile” came about because when he was a student in Slobodka, his mother had made a long trip to see him, but he was so involved in extra Yom Kippur Katan prayers and Talmudic studies that he had no time to see her. He was haunted by her last words, “I have a son a Zaddik (righteous man)” because he feared that these words were said not with pride, but rather with sarcastic irony.
I believe that the Kohanim, descendants of Aaron, the High Priest, who “loved all creatures and brought them closer to Torah” (Avot 1:12), must bless the congregation “with love” in order to stress the importance of love in meting out religio-legal judgments.