ParashatEmorhas more verses than any other. Itsomehowseemsapt that aparashathat is so fullshould also be sotroubling to the modern learner.
Thisparashadeals withthe Temple, the priests( Kohanim)who serve in it,and the sacrifices to be brought to it andtothem.We learn aboutpurity rules for priests,who they can and cannot marry,when they can approach adead body,and who mightnotbecome a priest.Weare toldabout animal sacrifices, whatstate of animalis acceptable to bring and when to bring it. Within that context we are reminded aboutShabbat andallthefestivals.Theparashaends with the story of a blasphemer,his horrendous punishmentand a reminder about retribution.
There is much aboutthisparashato make thefair-mindedreader uncomfortable.There is a strong focus on what are called blemishes and imperfections. A priest may not marry a woman ‘defiled by harlotry’ (Ch21 v7).The priesthood is inherited, passed down from father to son,yet if the son of a priest has an’imperfection’he cannot serve in theTemple. These imperfections are named extensively in Chapter 21as all mannersofdisability that today, thoughTV and thejob market may suggestotherwise, needdisqualifyno one from anything.
No animal with any blemish can be accepted as a sacrificeeither. It is as though the Torah, like the worst advertisingagency, is telling usthat there is only onetype ofbodyandonlyonetype ofpastthatareacceptableand’perfect’. What is it about these priests that they must reject life’sdifficulties?
Yet within thisparashaisalsoendlesscompassion andbenevolence,yearning for a fair and kind society.
We mustn’tsacrifice a baby animal with,orin front of, its mother.RambamandRambanargue as to the reason for this. They both understand that there is somethinginherentlycruel about removingababyfrom itsmotherthat must be avoided.Rambamsuggests that this prohibition exists sothe animalswon’t suffer more than they need to. But forRambanitis sohumans remember that theymustalwaysact with mercy. Thehalachapermits usto eat meat,but as we kill the animal wemust remainas thoughtful and humane as possible.
Theparashatells us to leave the produce atthe edges of our fields on the groundso that the poorand the strangermay collect the leftovers. In all ouractions we must remain moral. We must always remember that our wealth and success comefrom nowhere but above.The priesthood might be hereditarybut all gifts come froma sourcebeyond ourownmeagre efforts.
Priests, and only priests, aregiven permissionhereto reject those with ‘blemishes’. Inlife these differences areoftenwhatmake us so much more interesting, insightful and inconvenient to others.
OnlyKohanimmay cut themselves off and concentrate on nothing but divine engagement.The rest of usare held to much higher standards of humanity.We must live with blemishes.It is for us to ensure that thesacrificesof those physically, politically or financially different from usare acknowledged. We must embrace and welcome that which we imagine tobe’imperfect’.
Dina Pinner is co-founding director ofKayamaMoms, support and advocacy group for Jewish single mothers by choice. She lives in Jerusalem and is also a teacher and a poet.