Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Emor (Leviticus 21-24)Passing the Baton

A great deal of this week’s Parsha deals with matters pertaining to Kohanim, the decedents of Aaron. “Priests” is usually the English translation but there’s no appropriate terminology to describe this unique group of people whose task it is to perform the service in Jerusalem’s ancient Temple as well as being teachers for the Jewish people. The reason “priest” is not an accurate translation is because the priests of gentile nations have laws separating them from the masses. It might be prohibiting them from marriage, inflicting self-pain, being partially bald, or other activities indicating they are holy and above the masses. In Judaism, our teachers serve as models; the idea that they are too remote to relate to is foreign to us. Therefore, in this Parsha many mitzvot are repeated because even though they have been previously stated, we want to emphasize to the Kohanim and the general population that the Kohanim are not above us or the laws and customs we follow; they must remain humble even though they have a distinctive calling.
One restriction unique to Kohanim is that they can’t come into contact with a dead body. A corpse attains a state of ritual impurity because the soul has left it. All of our material pursuits are considered clean and even sacred when they serve to strengthen the soul. Every time a person cooks for a sick person or makes a hospital visit the body has been used to help the soul fulfill its mission. When you see a person with children travelling alone and you offer help, you are feeding your soul, which seeks to do acts of kindness and live for others. A dead body is devoid of a soul and therefore lacks the ability to help, feel and live for others. In principle, all of us should not have contact with a dead body due to what it represents, but we are humans living in an earthly world. We need to work, get dirty, and spend the great part of our lives doing so. We also must respect the dignity of the deceased and prepare a proper Jewish burial. As such, we can come in contact with dead bodies but the Kohanim must abstain from doing so. In all other matters of Judaism, the Kohanim live and observe the same life we do but in this one area they serve as a reminder. Being as they can’t come in contact with a dead body, it reminds the rest of us of what a dead body represents—lack of potential or the ability to make choices, help people, and even help ourselves. One person might feel like a failure, another feels she doesn’t deserve to be loved, but as long as they are alive, they can do something about it.
And G-d said to Moses: say to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none of you defile himself for a dead person among his people. (Leviticus 21:1)
What is the meaning of “say to the Kohanim” followed by “and say to them?” The second “say” seems superfluous. Rashi comments that the repetition comes to instruct the adult Kohanim to educate their children not to come in contact with dead bodies. This interpretation is difficult because there is no indication it refers specifically to reminding the children to be careful; maybe it is merely a special warning for adult Kohanim. The solution carries an important message for educating our children to embrace the opportunity to carry the Jewish torch to the next generation.
Whether it’s healthful eating, making sure to say thank you, being considerate of others, sharing, and all other admirable traits, the parents’ words will fall on deaf ears if the children see the parents themselves are not enthusiastic about it. For example, if a man was told by his doctor to cut out certain foods and, as a result, fresh fruit and vegetables are brought every night to the dinner table. What will be his reaction? If he complains about how much he is being denied and he dislikes what he’s eating, what impression will be made on the children? In another scenario, a package was mistakenly sent and (because it can’t be tracked) the parents are planning to keep it, but then a visiting grandparent tells them it’s wrong. They decide to return it but complain that they don’t need to be saints and are resentful because they were guilted into returning it. What message are they conveying to their children? Sometimes you have to do things, but it’s a bummer. No matter how much one or both parents emphasize a message, if there’s no enthusiasm, what hope is there that the children will want to do it? Imagine in the scenario above, if the father would have said, “I never would have chosen this diet but I feel so much better. I don’t feel like I sacrificed anything.” He embraces his reality and even goes shopping with the kids to get his and their favorite fruits and veggies. Imagine if the parents, after mistakenly having received a package, were excited and said, “it’s not often we get to do something nice for someone else. What is $40 compared with the feeling I get from doing the right thing?” Children grow up following what they saw their parents getting excited about. Whether it’s basketball or ballet, parents’ enthusiasm or lack thereof will have direct impact on the children.
How many times have I heard the following from high school and college students, young adults and older: “My parents used to drop me off at the synagogue every Saturday for a year before my Bar/Bat mitzvah and then picked me up after services.” The message? You have to do this but I’m (the parent) out of here. There seemed to be boundless enthusiasm to go to our soccer and lacrosse events, even hours away, but being Jewish was an unfortunate result of birth; it was something I had to do.” Is there any wonder that children who never saw their parents get enthusiastic about Israel, community, or anything Jewish want nothing to do with being Jewish? It isn’t their fault, nor is it their parents’, who also might not have seen any enthusiasm from their parents, but facts are facts and lack of pride and enthusiasm for Jewish identity denies our children an opportunity. “But,” you ask, “what should I do if I find no meaning in being Jewish?” You might ask yourself, “have I really given it a chance? Have I ever attended a meaningful class or made an appointment to speak with a Rabbi? Ask yourself, “I gave four years of my life to college and have invested much more than that in a career, but how much have I invested in my own people and we stand for?”
Kohanim are especially admonished to educate their children, but the real education begins with the Kohanim themselves. When they embrace their distinctive role among the Jewish people, their enthusiasm will spill over to their children. When we embrace our special role as Jews, as parents, grandparents, and community members, then we can rest assured another generation of Jews will joyfully carry the baton and hand it over to the next generation. Good Shabbos  [Based on the writings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) in Drash Moshe p. 96 and Bastion of Faith pp. 131-132]
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