Emor 5779

By: Dr. Melissa Steiner

Emor means ‘speak’ in Hebrew and the parsha is focused on continuing to speak or lay out the laws for man. If we were reading the whole Torah portion, in the first Aliyah we would read about the qualities and behaviors of a Kohen. In the second Aliyah, we would learn how body blemishes and deformities disqualify the Kohen from performing priestly duties. In the third Aliyah, this restriction is extended to disqualify blemished animals from sacrificial use; this Aliyah also restricts animal sacrifice before they are eight days old and introduces the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name). The fourth through sixth aliyot briefly mention Shabbat and then gives more specification of the obligations of Shabbat, Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret.  The seventh Aliyah focuses on the more frequent activities of kindling the Menorah (in the Temple), and arranging twelve ’showbreads’ on the Mishkan Table every Shabbat; the Torah portion concludes with a few additional laws about blasphemy, murder, and injury to others.

As we are reading only in the third cycle, we will start with the fifth Aliyah. I’m not going to go into depth on each of the aliyot but I do have a few comments to share on some of them.

In the first and second aliyot, we learn about the Kohen’s obligation to maintain a high level of ritual purity.

  • A kohen may not become ritually impure through contact with a dead body
    • I learned about this rule during the year that Ron and I lived in Israel. I was working at Hebrew University and was taking a ride with coworkers from the campus at Mount Scopus to the campus at Ein Kerem. As we entered the parking lot at Ein Kerem and decided where we would enter the hospital, one of the guys asked me if I was a Kohen. I answered no, but had to ask why he questioned it. He wanted to use the entrance shortcut near the morgue.
  • A kohen with a physical deformity cannot serve in the Holy Temple.
    • This law makes me uncomfortable… if humans are created in the image of the Lord, why exclude someone with some kind of deformity? And why does a deformity make one unfit to serve the community?
    • This kind of exclusion feels particularly contrary to today’s morality and in my research on trying to understand this constraint the best I could find is that this is an example of a paradox within the Torah that is meant to spur conversation and debate.
    • Is this the start of a conversation on how to treat those who have physical or mental limitations? Is this simply a warning or guidance on how to have special respect for the life and care of those who maybe are not wholly capable of caring for themselves?
    • It is incumbent upon us to struggle to find meaning for these paradoxes in every generation and to puzzle over the applicability in our own time.

Near the end of the fourth aliya, after the instruction for counting the Omer and the introduction to Shavuot, there is the guidance on leaving something for the poor after harvesting.

When you reap the harvest of your Land, you shall not completely remove the corner of your field during your harvesting, and you shall not gather up the gleanings of your harvest. [Rather,] you shall leave these for the poor person and for the stranger.

Gleaning the fields. I learned of this practice from my children. When Rachel and Lilly were involved in youth group at Shearith, they participated in a harvest gleaning at Paul Quinn College in south Dallas to support the Farmer’s Market and food donation. In May 2010, Paul Quinn College converted the football field into an organic farm called We Over Me Farm.

From their website:

Located in a federally-recognized food desert, the Farm has produced and provided more than 30,000 pounds of organic produce since its inception in March 2010, and no less than 10% of this produce has been donated to neighborhood charitable organizations. The rest supports community members, the College, and restaurants and grocers throughout Dallas.

In addition to providing fresh, healthy, affordable food options for its surrounding residents, the Farm strives to improve communities throughout the metroplex by providing hands-on educational experiences for youth and adults alike to promote healthy eating, improved food access, and environmental stewardship.

Why does the Torah say to ‘leave these for the poor’? Why not give the food to the poor? If the youth group members had not gathered up the leavings for the Farmer’s Market, the vegetables would have been left… for the poor. Leaving the food allows the hungry community an opportunity to feed themselves and their families without the embarrassment of being seen or asking for help. For many people, asking for help is a sign of weakness and they may feel shame at being dependent upon someone else for life’s basic necessities. The practice of leaving a little extra – the corners of the field – for those in need not only feeds the hungry, it also feeds their self-esteem because they are able to procure for themselves the necessary food. You, as a farmer, would simply be facilitating.

And what if you are not a farmer? Giving anonymously fits the bill. You might give monies or maybe you buy one of those bags of food at the grocery checkout which is then donated. Or maybe you help out at the food bank. In the KC Nuggets this week, we learned of the opportunity to pack meals for Feed My Starving Children. We have the chance to support both food needs and dignity when we practice these behaviors.

In the seventh aliya, there seems to be a mish-mash of leftover instruction. The one which piqued my interest was the very specific instruction about the bread for the table of the Mishkan.

And you shall take fine flour and bake it [into] twelve loaves. Each loaf shall be [made from] two tenths [of an ephah of flour].

And you place them in two stacks, six in each stack, upon the pure table, before the Lord.

Why talk about bread now, after instructing on holiday observance? Why twelve loaves? Why are they stacked? I found this wonderful article called ‘Lesson of the Bread’ (https://torah.org/torah-portion/parsha-insights-5760-emor-2/) and in there I found the following explanations:

Why now?

This bread was placed on Shabbos and remained there until the next Shabbos when it was replaced with new bread. It miraculously remained as warm and fresh when it as removed as it had been when it was originally placed. It was held up to serve as testimony to the warm and fresh love that God felt toward His nation.

The holidays and the trips to the Temple served as spiritual highpoints which were meant to carry us through the trials and tribulations of the entire year. Just as the bread kept its warmth from week to week, we too needed to keep the spirituality warm from holiday to holiday.

Why twelve?

Twelve loaves represent 12 tribes. One stack representing the 6 sons of Leah and one stack representing the 6 sons of Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah.

And why stacked?

The loaves were flat with upturned ends. These bent up ends covered a surface equal to that of the base of the loaf. A total of twelve loaves were arranged on the table in stacks of six each. The two bottom loaves covered the entire table and the two sides of each loaf rose to support the loaf directly above it.

With this shape, each loaf gave as much space toward supporting another loaf as it gave toward its own base. This clearly is the basic condition for prosperity. Each individual acquiring and possessing wealth for the sake of others as much as for his own sake.

So the lesson of the bread is that the twelve stacked loaves, representing the diverse twelve tribes, suggest that we look past our differences and support each other, and the warmth of the bread is the warmth we carry with us and which carries us forward from holiday to holiday.

A common thread of caring weaves throughout Emor – I certainly would not have recognized the concept of gleaning and stacking loaves of bread would have any connection. But now I can’t ‘unsee’ it.

Shabbat Shalom