Shabbat Shalom: Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel“And the Lord said to Moses, Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them…” (Leviticus 21:1)

What is the major task of a religious leader, a community rabbi or the dean of a day school? This is a question that plagues every search committee as well as every practicing “professional” religionist, because, while satisfying everyone’s desires and expectations is a virtual impossibility, establishing priorities and setting clear goals is an absolute necessity. We will attempt to provide some general direction derived from the priestly functions described in this Torah and haftara reading, bearing in mind Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s adage that if everyone is satisfied, you are not a proper rabbi, and if no one is satisfied, you are not a proper mentsch (sensitive human being).

The Kohen was the priest-educator during the biblical and Temple periods. The very first – and unique – commandment concerning him is that he not defile himself by contact with the dead; this is an especially telling limitation when we remember that the primary responsibility of priests of all religions is to aid their adherents to “get to the other world” – that the Bible of ancient Egypt was called the Book of the Dead. In effect, the Torah is teaching us that our religious leadership must deal with the living and not the dead: must spend its time teaching Torah and accessing Jewish experiences, rather than giving eulogies and visiting cemeteries; must be dedicated primarily to this world rather than the world-to-come. Although he must unquestionably be available to eulogize the dead and comfort the mourners – since death remains an inevitable part of life!

Second, the high priest (kohen gadol ) wore a head-plate upon which was written “holy unto God” and a breast-plate upon which were engraved the twelve tribes of Israel. I believe that the symbolism is quite clear: The religious leader must dedicate his mind to the divine and his heart to his people; his thoughts, plans and machinations must always be purely in line with the God-endowed principles of ethical conduct, and his feelings must be informed with love, concern and commitment to the welfare of each and every Jew. His primary task must be not so much to elevate himself to God as it is to bring God to his people; and the unique characteristics of each of the twelve tribes remind him that there are at least twelve different gates through which the divine can be sought after and encountered. The true leader helps many different individuals discover his/her pathway within Torah, his/her roadway to approach God’s tent.

Third, the prophet Ezekiel (44:24) adds a phrase which we read in the haftara but which is based on many biblical verses: “And my directions (torot) and my statutes, all of my festivals, shall they guard (yishmor).” The Bible as well as our liturgy is replete with the necessity to “guard” the Torah and its commandments; from a linguistic perspective, it is fairly easy to understand the necessity to study Torah and perform the commandments, but whence comes the notion of guarding Torah and commandments? What does this verb shamor (to guard – usually mistranslated as to observe) actually mean in context?

There is a well-known midrash, cited in the Jerusalem Talmud, that Rav Ashi visited a Jewish town for the first time and asked to see the “guardians of the city” (neturei karta). When the townsmen brought out the policemen and firemen, the rabbinical sage rejected them; the true guardians, he insisted were the teachers of the children in the city.

The analogy goes much deeper. In the realm of torts, or civil monetary law, the Bible (Exodus 22:6–14) and the Talmud (Tractate Bava Metzia) delineate four prototypical guardians (shomrim), and the extent of their respective responsibility for the objects in their custody for safekeeping. First and foremost, they must understand that while the object may have been placed in their possession to guard for a certain period – if the owner was going on vacation, for example – the guardian dare not use it up in any way; much the opposite, the guardian or shomer must restore it, whole and intact, to its true and initial owner. Consequently, if the rabbi and educator is entrusted with “guarding Torah,” the guardian or shomer Torah must understand that although the teaching is in his/her possession, its ultimate owner is God; in effect, the Almighty has deposited it as a sacred trust with the religious leaders of the community. Thus, this Torah dare not be altered or compromised; it is to be transmitted but not transmuted, taught but not tampered with. To be sure, the Torah may be interpreted and applied within the accepted rules of explication, but only by those qualified to do so and only in accordance with its own rules and regulations.

The guardians who do receive payment (shomrei sakhar) have a heightened responsibility in Jewish civil law: not only are they culpable of willful neglect, but they are also culpable if the object in their custody is lost or stolen. Continuing our analogy to Torah, a “professional” Jewish leader cannot escape the tragic truth that our Torah is being lost to countless Jews who have never ever been exposed to the rich treasures of their tradition. Jewish ignorance which leads to assimilation is an advanced stage of Jewish Alzheimer’s, a dreadful case of “losing it” – “it” being the essence of our history, the very bedrock of tradition upon which our future must be built. The guardians of Torah must tirelessly pursue the initiation and implementation of ideas such as “Birthright” and the creation of Jewish institutions such as outreach synagogues, day schools, summer camps, and seminars which can restore the lost treasure to its rightful owners, the Jewish people. And even if false ideologies and perversions attempt to “steal” the true Torah – such as Jews for Jesus or other Christian missionary movements attempting to capture Jews under false pretenses – it is incumbent upon the guardians of Torah to prove the falseness of such claims and to restore the pure traditions to their rightful owners.

However, it is the third level of guardianship, the borrower (sho’el), who is the most analogous to our Jewish leadership. In the realm of Jewish civil law, one who borrows an object for his/her own use while it is in his/her possession assumes responsibility not only for willful neglect, loss or thievery, but even for unforeseen tragedies which may threaten the existence of the object, such as fire or flood (onsin). Our tradition is replete with Torah teachers who continued to transmit this message, to impart their sacred trust under the most tragic of circumstances: Rabbi Akiva, who taught Torah while in prison and even while being tortured to death with iron combs under the Hadrianic persecutions; Maimonides, who continued to study, teach and write while fleeing the Almohad Muslim persecutors; Rabbi Oshry who answered religious questions and gave religious direction in the midst of the horrors of the concentration camps.

During the three summers I spent with my family in Miami Beach, Florida in the early 1970s, I got to know, appreciate and love Rabbi Sender Gross, of blessed memory, the founder and dean of the Hebrew Academy of Miami Beach, the individual who is credited as being the pioneer who first brought Torah to Florida. I learned from him, up close, what it really means to be a Torah-guardian and to discharge one’s responsibility with total dedication, completely devoid of self-interest or self-aggrandizement. Two incidents I witnessed personally: When the yeshiva high school he had started was in danger of closing because of lack of funds, and when all of its fundraising efforts proved unsuccessful, he took out a personal mortgage on his home in order to keep the yeshiva going; and at the end of his life, when the school bus drivers went on strike, he personally picked up the students and drove them to the Hebrew Academy so that their Torah study would not be interrupted. Such is the dedication of a true Torah guardian, who understands that his responsibility is not only to teach Torah to those interested in hearing it, but it is rather to preserve Torah, to transmit and instill it within the hearts and minds of the next generation, no matter how insurmountable the obstacles for doing so may appear to be. And our sages guarantee that in accordance with the commitment will come the ultimate reward.


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