Emor: Communicating across the ages

Emor: Communicating across the ages

It is a common principle of Torah study that the Torah text employs an economy of words, so that any redundancies in the Biblical narrative immediately raise a red flag and pique our curiosity. Such is the case in the opening verse of this week’s sedra of Emor. “Emor el ha-Kohanim B’nai Aharon v’amarta la-hem – say to the sons of Aaron and you shall say to them.” (Lev. 21:1) This seemingly superfluous use of the same verb has given rise to a well-known and even celebrated line by the noted Biblical exegete, Rashi, in which he cites a comment from the Talmud, (Yevamot 114a). “Emor v’amarta ““ l’hazhir gedolim al ha-ketanim.” The Torah uses the repetitious wording of “say” (“emor”), followed by “and you shall say” (“v’amarta”) in order to enjoin the adults with regard to the children or minors. The basic message here is that the first command (“emor”) indicates that the adult Kohanim/Priests are forbidden to render themselves ritually impure and unfit through contact with the dead and by other disqualifying means; whereas, “and you shall say” (“v’amarta”) is intended as a reminder that the Kohanim must convey the same ritual set to their children. The first part of this instructional piece is shared by Moshe with the Kohanim who in turn must communicate this important lesson to their progeny.

In the most obvious way this previously considered redundancy speaks of an urgent functional message that must be shared with the Kohanim across the generations. Their unique role as teachers and spiritual founts cannot be compromised. In that regard they carry a special status that is “life affirming” and must shy away from any involvement with the death cults and distractions that were a common feature of their pagan counterparts. The only exception to this rule concerns the burial needs of one of the Kohen’s seven closest of kin or a “met mitzvah”, someone abandoned with no one to care for his/her final honors. In those extremely personal or tragic situations the Kohen’s special status is appropriately set aside.

The aforementioned strictures also create something of a “signature pedagogy” between elders and their successive generations. It is a parent-child connection. The Torah mandates a multi-generational approach; in this case that the would-be Kohanim be nurtured early on for their anticipated public service. The older generation must be concerned with its younger charges. One sees in this educational imperative an early case being made for religious apprenticeship and mimetic learning.

Apropos the Kohen’s singular role and place among Jewish society, this represents a proactive approach to articulating his unique function to the waiting generations. It underscores the primacy of the Kohen’s responsibility to effectively communicate and connect with his own before he can expect to succeed and advance with the “hamon ahm”, the masses who readily seek his blessings and religious guidance. Writ large and generalized onto a larger landscape of intergenerational education, this priestly program can be expanded to the way we communicate our personal generative themes to our children. This lesson of this parsha’s opening is that our major personal mandates cannot be outsourced to others when it is our own values system that we are communicating.

“Le-hazhir gedolim al ha-ketanim” then becomes a rallying call for parents to teach their children often and early; another manifestation of the Torah’s preoccupation with a certain requisite form of “homeschooling” that informs and guides religious privilege and distinct responsibilities. It is a challenge that devolves heavily on all who seek to serve the community in earnest; that while endeavoring to fulfill one’s God-given role, we must be cautioned not to overlook our personal heirs. Indeed, there is no positive purpose served by a Kohen, rabbi, educator, or other communal leader expending untold energies to promote and foster spiritual and organizational growth for others while neglecting the aching and legitimate needs of his/her own precious cargo. This weighty load must first be lifted and carried at home.