On Shabbat May 9 the Torah reading in Israel will be BEHAR while in the Diaspora the Torah reading will be the portion of EMOR. Students in Israel please scroll down this email for the commentary on BEHAR.
DIASPORA TORAH READING SHABBAT MAY 9: EMOR
UNIVERSAL TORAH COMMENTARY
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: Parshas EMOR, Leviticus 21:1-24:23
SAY TO THE PRIESTS
As discussed in Universal Torah #20 TETZAVEH, the Torah conception of the priests and their relationship with the people is radically different from the conception of the priesthood in other traditions. The Cohen of the Torah does not absolve the Israelite of his obligation to forge his own personal relationship with G-d. The Cohen is not an intermediary who performs mysterious rituals that magically guarantee that all will be well for the ignorant worshipper who stands by watching.
In many religions, the priests held or hold a monopoly on religious knowledge, often actually discouraging the pursuit of such knowledge by the masses, whose very ignorance is necessary in order for the priest to maintain his position.
By contrast, the Holy Torah was given as a fountain of truth and wisdom to Israel and to all others who want to drink its waters. The entire people of Israel is intended to be a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation: the goal is for each Israelite to develop, build and cultivate his or her own bond with G-d in every detail of life. How can we do this? We need to learn how to do it. For this reason, pride of place in the Torah tradition goes to the sage and teacher, because he is the one who can tell us how to do this. Even a MAMZER TALMID CHACHAM (an outstanding sage who is of illegitimate birth) takes precedence over the High Priest!
In our present parshah of EMOR, which is largely taken up with laws specifically relating to the priests, we see that Moses was commanded to instruct not only the priests themselves in these laws but also the Children of Israel. The Children of Israel are not to be excluded from all knowledge and understanding of the priesthood. On the contrary, they too are to study the laws relating to the priests. This is because the Israelites, as a kingdom of priests, have to have a model to learn from. The Cohanim are a kingdom within a kingdom. The Cohanim are to be to the Israelite what the Israelites are to be to the world.
The Temple is G-d’s palace on earth: a center-point for all the world to see, in order to contemplate the profundity of the message it contains and thereby to draw closer to the King. Everything about the Temple is about coming closer to G-d, particularly the KORBAN (“sacrifice”, from the Hebrew world KAROV, “close”). The entire Temple services center upon the sacrificial rites: the daily animal, grain, wine and incense offerings, the lighting of the Candelabrum, and so on. Like life in a royal court, life in the Temple was a spectacle. This was particularly so for the Israelite who brought a personal KORBAN, be it a SHLAMIM (“Peace”) offering, or an OLAH and particularly a CHATAS – sin-offering.
The animal is substituted for the person to undergo the slaughter, flaying, cutting and burning the sinner really deserves. (Those who worry about the alleged cruelty to the animal should first go and complain about the millions of animals daily slaughtered all over the world, often with great cruelty, as “sacrifices” for the gratification of men’s selfish lusts. To understand the meaning of the KORBONOS, we must be willing to think of the Temple as it actually was and will be, not try to adapt it to man-made moral “standards”.)
The SEFER HACHINUCH (explaining the meaning of the 613 commandments) discusses the sacrificial rituals at length in Mitzvah #95: Building the Temple. The ceremony consisted of various stages: SEMICHAH (the penitent’s laying on of hands on the animal’s head), SHECHITAH, the slaughter of the animal, KABALAH, collecting of its blood and sprinkling it on the altar, the flaying and cutting of the carcass, salting of the meat, the burning of the altar portions and eating by the priests of their share. The SEFER HACHINUCH explains in detail how the different stages of this unsettling and even shocking ceremony all communicated an unforgettable lesson to the penitent about how man must bring his animal side under control. We are to learn how to “slaughter” and elevate our animality by devoting our energies to G-d’s service and thereby burning our fat on His altar. (See also Nachmanides’ commentary on Leviticus 1:8).
The priests in the Temple, who conducted these ceremonies, were actors in a drama that was calculated to awaken people and induce them think and repent rather than to hypnotize them with hocus-pocus. The role of the priest was as a facilitator, enabling people to understand the lesson for themselves.
Carrying the obligation to serve as ministers in the House and Court of G-d, the priests are a nation set apart, and are subject to an even more stringent code than the Israelites, as laid out in our parshah of EMOR. They are not allowed to defile themselves for the dead except in the case of their closest relatives. They are strictly forbidden to blemish their own bodies. They are not allowed to marry a divorcee or a woman who has been involved in a relationship tainted by immorality, etc. The Cohanim are to be a completely pure breed, fit to serve as G-d’s ministers on earth. The true Cohen is to be an exemplar in his very life of the elevated purity to which every Israelite should aspire, each according to his or her level.
The ultimate exemplar is to be the COHEN GADOL (“high priest”). Although the COHEN GADOL appears in costumes that are most gorgeous by the standares of this world, he must remain completely separated from this world. This is because his task is to keep our eyes focussed upon G-d’s world. Thus the COHEN GADOL is not allowed to defile himself with the dead even in the case of his closest relatives. For in G-d’s world, there is no death but only life.
Everything about the Temple is designed to lift us up above the often tawdry world around us and to teach us how to draw closer to the underlying reality of G-d. For this reason, the Temple must be a place of the imposing splendor and beauty. Everything must be in the best repair. Not a flagstone must be loose nor an altar stone chipped. The vessels must be the finest gold and silver. And so too, the ministers themselves must be people of pleasing looks. Our parshah details the physical blemishes that disqualify a priest from participating in the Temple service itself (though not from eating sacrificial portions). The parshah also details the blemishes that disqualify an animal from being offered as a KORBAN. Everything offered to G-d has to be the very finest and most beautiful. So too, we must seek to beautify our offerings of prayers, our mitzvot and acts of kindness, and take care that they should not be blemished.
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THE CYCLE OF THE YEAR
The calling of the COHANIM was very exalted. The separation and purity demanded of them is not required of the Israelites, who on the contrary are required to be involved in the world — farming, manufacturing, selling and buying, raising families, etc. As discussed in the commentary on the previous parshah, KEDOSHIM, it is precisely through bringing every area of our actual lives under the wing of the Torah that we attain holiness.
Only the Cohen Gadol is to remain within the Temple precincts or in his nearby home in Jerusalem all the time. The people are to be throughout the country, going about their lives. For the Israelite, the relationship of G-d is one of “running and returning”: “running” in the sense of regularly rising above the mundane to make a deeper connection with the underlying reality of G-d, but then “returning”, in the sense of going back to grappling with everyday reality.
The Torah appointed a rhythm of weekly, monthly and seasonal MO’ADIM, “appointed times”, whereby the Israelites rise above the mundane and restore and strengthen their connection with the divine. Our parshah is one of several in the Torah (Ex. ch. 23; Numbers ch. 23; Deut. ch. 16) that set forth the cycle of festivals and their associated practices, each with its own particular focuses.
In our parshah (Leviticus ch. 23) one of the main themes that runs through the account of the various festivals and their associated Temple practices is that of drawing ecological balance and agricultural blessing into the world. During the ALIYAH LE-REGEL — the foot-pilgrimage to the Temple on Pesach, Shavuos and Succos — the Israelites would leave the work of making a living and tilling the ground in order to participate in ceremonies whose purpose was to bless that work with G-dliness. Pesach, and Shavuos are particularly bound up with grain, which is man’s staple food. The Matzahs eaten on Pesach may be made from one of the five kinds of grain. On the second day of Pesach, at the beginning of the grain harvesting season, an Omer measure is to be brought from the newly-ripened barley crop. During the coming weeks, while the wheat-harvesting is going on, the Sefirah count directs our minds forward to Shavuos, when a “new grain offering”, the first wheat offering from the new crop — two loaves of leavened bread — was brought.
The observances of Succos are particularly bound up with the water-cycle. The four species of Esrog (citron), Lulav (palm branch), Hadass (myrtle) and Arovos (willow branches) all require ample water. Succos comes after the hot, dry summer of Eretz Israel, prior to what should be the rainy season. We take these four species in our hands and pour out our hearts like water in thanks and praise, hinting to our heavenly Father how totally depend we are on His blessings and mercy.
The chapter in our present parshah of EMOR relating to the festival cycle leads us in the direction of next week’s parshah, BEHAR, which sets forth the commandments relating to the cycles of Sabbatical and Jubilee years, which are also bound up with agriculture, ecological balance and reverence for the earth.
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Besides the cycles of festivals and Sabbaticals that give time its rhythm, the world is also governed by cycles that are often not apparent, because one generation does not know what happened in previous generations and therefore cannot understand how what happens today is cyclically rooted in what happened earlier.
To understand the incident of the MEGADEF (“blasphemer”) in the closing section of our parshah (Leviticus 24:10ff), it is necessary to understand that “the son of the Israelite woman who was the son of an Egyptian man” was in fact the issue of an illicit relationship. Our rabbis teach that Shulamis Bas Divri was the wife of the Israelite whom Moses saw being beaten by an Egyptian the first time he went out to visit his brothers. The Egyptian would daily drive the Israelite out of his home and send him to his labors, thereafter going in to his wife. (See Rashi on Lev. 24:10 and on Exodus 2:11).
There is a deep counterpoint in the positioning of this episode in parshas EMOR, which centers on the special purity demanded of the priests. Shulamis Bas Divri is the exemplar of the opposite: immorality. While the holiness of the priesthood requires separation and the making of distinctions between pure and impure, fine and blemished, she sought to erase distinctions, greeting everyone with a naive “Peace be upon you, peace be upon you”. As if friendly chatter is enough to turn evil into good. It was Shulamis Bas Divri’s endeavor to erase distinctions that laid her open to the immoral relationship which led to the birth of the blasphemer. The latter, however, discovered that, whether you like it or not, this IS a world of distinctions. While the blasphemer was an Israelite through his mother, he had no tribal affiliation, since this comes only through the father. Accordingly the blasphemer had no place in the Israelite camp.
Contemporary political correctness will cry out in the voice of Shulamis Bas Divri that he should have been given a place — isn’t it unfair that he should be excluded because of a quirk of birth? Endless similar questions can be asked about other commandments in our parshah. Why should a blemished priest not be allowed to serve in the Temple? Why should a divorcee not be allowed to marry a priest? etc. etc.
Rashi brings a midrash that the blasphemer “went out” (Lev. 24:10) in the sense that he departed from the Torah: he mocked the idea that the Sanctuary Show-Bread (subject of the preceding section), which was eaten by the priests when it was nine days old, was a fitting institution in the Sanctuary of the King (Rashi ad loc.). The blasphemer could not accept G-d’s Torah the way it is. He wanted to adapt the Torah fit his own personal views.
There was a way that even the blasphemer could have found his place. As quoted at the outset, even a MAMZER TALMID CHOCHOM has precedence over the High Priest. If the blasphemer had been willing to submit himself to G-d and accept the position G-d put him in, he could have been saved. But he was not willing to submit and instead he opened his mouth and poured out a torrent of abuse.
Over sixty years previous to this, when Moses saw this man’s father striking Shulamis Bas Divri’s husband, Moses knew that there was no potential. “And he looked here and there and he saw that there was no man [that no man would come forth from him to convert, Rashi] and he struck the Egyptian” (Ex. 2:12). The rabbis taught that Moses “struck” him by invoking the Name of HaShem. It was precisely this name that the son of the Egyptian’s illicit relationship blasphemed. Prior to the Giving of the Torah, Moses inflicted instant justice on the father. However, after the Giving of the Torah, Moses was subject to the Torah like everyone else and he had to wait to hear from G-d how to deal with the blaspheming son.
The account of the punishment of the blasphemer includes related laws of punishments for killing and the damages that must be paid for inflicting injury to humans and animals. The cycles of crime and its penalties and payments revolve from generation to generation, but this is not apparent to the onlooker who sees only the here and now and does not understand what was before and what will come afterwards.
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Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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ISRAEL TORAH READING SHABBAT MAY 9: BEHAR
UNIVERSAL TORAH COMMENTARY
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Torah Reading: Parshas BEHAR, Leviticus 25:1-26:2
Haftara: Jeremiah 32:6-27
THE LAND BELONGS TO G-D
“To G-d belongs the land and its fullness, the earth and its inhabitants.” (Psalms 24:1). “The heavens, the heavens belong to G-d, but the earth He GAVE TO THE SONS OF ADAM. The dead will not praise G-d nor all who go down to desolation. But we will praise G-d from now and forever! Halleluyah!” (Psalms 115:16-17).
Our present parshah, BEHAR, and its “sister”, next week’s parshah of BECHUKOSAI, which in some years is read on the same Shabbat, explain under what conditions the Earth and its treasures are given in trust to the sons of man, and when the trust is taken back by its rightful Owner — if men breach the deed of trust, which is the Torah, G-d’s Covenant.
The social, economic, ecological and environmental lessons of BEHAR are particularly urgent today, when men act as lords of the Earth, owning and controlling vast tracts, depleting and destroying her gifts, despoiling her of her treasures for their own short-sighted gain and pleasure, without ever pausing to consider: Who really owns all this? For what purpose did He make it? On the contrary, the Torah commands us to appoint seasons and special years in which we all reflect on Who owns everything and learn to respect His creation.
BEHAR continues with the theme of the cycle of time, which was also central in last week’s parshah of EMOR in the section dealing with the annual cycle of festivals (Leviticus Ch. 23). The section in EMOR began with the first of all of G-d’s “appointed seasons”, the Holy Shabbat, which is the crown of G-d’s Covenant. BEHAR takes the concepts of “Six days of work, one day of rest” a level higher, dealing with the cycle of years, which is measured in circuits of 7 x 7 Sabbaticals, followed by the fiftieth Jubilee year.
Our parshah of BEHAR thus begins with the Shemittah cycle in which the land is to be worked and tilled for six years, after which it is to be left “fallow” throughout the seventh year. The Torah gives us a picture of an idyllic world in which independent owner-farmers are raising their wheat and grains for bread and tending their vineyards for wine. After all their gifts to the poor and tithes to the priests and Levites etc. during the six years of labor, they are to go a step further in the seventh year, giving their very fields and vineyards back to their true Owner. In the seventh year, they are not allowed to work their own land. Instead, they must open their gates to everyone so that all can have a share in the fruits from the holy Table of G-d — the produce of Israel in the Shemittah year has a special sanctity. Even the animals have their share in the fruits of the Shemittah year — for like us, they too are G-d’s guests on His amazing Earth. The Shemittah cycle is a fundamental rhythm in time designed to help us constantly keep in mind that G-d is the true Owner — of all the world around us and of our very selves.
The fifty-year Jubilee cycle takes us to even higher levels of this awareness. The Jubilee cycle is like a gracious cosmic game in which even the losers eventually get to go back and have a fresh to start all over again — because G-d, the true Owner and Master of all the land and its inhabitants, is truly compassionate. Even in the idyllic world of independent land-owners, one tends to be more successful, while another is less successful. In time, one is forced to sell his land and even his house. Then he falls into debt, and eventually he becomes enslaved. In the Jubilee year, signaled by the trumpeting of the Shofar of Freedom on Yom Kippur of that year, all the slaves go free and all the fields and orchards go back to their original owners.
In our parshah, the Torah sets forth the code of laws applying to ownership of land in particular, and also of other forms of property, and under what conditions. The laws in our parshah include those of sale, and of business honesty and integrity. The forms of property include people’s own selves: under the law of slavery, one person might become the “property” of someone else, whether in the legal or economic sense, or in the spiritual sense, where a person may even fall so low as to sell himself to some form of idolatry.
Rashi on Leviticus 26:1 explains the “moral logic” underlying the sequence of laws set forth in our parshah: “At first the Torah warns about the observance of the Sabbatical year. But if a person is greedy for money and falls under suspicion of violating the Sabbatical year, he ends up selling his possessions. That is why the Torah juxtaposes here the laws of sale, including the sale of moveable articles. If the person still does not repent, he ends up selling his hereditary land. If he still does not repent, he ends up selling his house. If he still does not repent, he has to borrow on interest. in the end he sells his very self, not just to an Israelite, but even to an idol-worshipper.”
Yet even the most degraded goes free in the Jubilee year, in which the blast of the Sinai trumpet of Freedom on the Day of At-One-ment signifies that all the debts have been paid through the redemptive power of Binah, the Fiftieth Gate. This theme of freedom in our parshah is particular relevant to us in the present season, as we count the days of the Omer in the seven-fold count of the days and weeks leading up to the Fiftieth Day, the Day of the New Offering, season of the Giving of the Torah: Freedom.
At the very heart of the entire system of redemption set forth in the Torah through the festival cycle and through the Sabbatical and Jubilee cycles lies the Shabbat, which is the very essence of the Sinaitic code. When Moses first asked Pharoah to free the Israelites, all he requested was that they should go “into the wilderness” (away from the technology of civilization) in order to liberate themselves from slavery to earthly lords of the land like Pharaoh. The commandment of Shabbat was given at Marah (Exodus 15:25), prior to the Giving of the Torah at Sinai. The concept of Shabbat is built into the concept of the Manna, which appeared for six days of the week with a double-portion on the sixth day. Shabbat is the fourth commandment. Immediately after the Ten Commandments in Exodus ch. 20, the Torah begins MISHPATIM with the laws of slavery, which involve the Sabbatical and Jubilee concepts.
Now in BEHAR, as we approach the conclusion of the elaboration of the Sinaitic code (BECHUKOSAI sets the seal on this, while the name of our parshah — “On the Mount” — reminds us of Sinai) the Torah returns to the theme of Shabbat as being at the very center of the Covenant. The concluding verse of our parshah is: “Guard My Sabbaths and have reverence for My Sanctuary, I am Hashem” (Leviticus 26:2). The entire time-scheme set forth in BEHAR — the Shemittahs and Jubilee year — is founded on the concept of Shabbat. Then in the following parshah, BECHUKOSAI, we see that the vengeance of the Covenant is built around a structure of seven-fold punishments for the spiral of sin caused by the violation of the Shabbat.
It is a strange irony that the observance of the Shabbat as set forth in the Shulchan Aruch, the practical Code of Jewish law, is something that most of the contemporary world finds impossible to accept. While the entire world accepts the concept of the Work and Leisure cycle, the world is unable to accept that a person may voluntarily take upon himself to abstain from all kinds of activities on the Sabbath day, and so too in the Sabbatical year, in order to show that he takes upon himself the Kingdom of Heaven, the world of the true Sabbath.
No serious political or intellectual commentator today would take seriously the idea that the complete observance of Shabbat and Shemittah, including abstinence by Israelites from the 39 prohibited labors on Shabbat and all the prohibited labors of Shemittah, could be the key to the redemption of Israel and saving the world ecology.
This contemporary neglect of the concept of Shabas a serious concept is in stark contrast to the centrality of the Shabbat in the prophetic vision of the world of the future, in which the Sanctuary in Yerushalayim is at the very center.
“For so says HaShem to the castrated who will guard My Sabbaths and chose what I desired and who hold by My Covenant. And I have given them in My House and within My walls a place and a name better than sons and daughters, I will give him an eternal name that will never be cut off. And the sons of the strange people who will be attached to HaShem to minister to Him and to love the name of HaShem, to be to Him as servants — all who keep the Shabbos and do not transgress it, and who hold by My Covenant — I will bring them to My holy Mountain and make them rejoice in the House of My Prayer, their whole-offerings and peace-offerings will be for favor on My Altar, for My House will be called The House of Prayer for all the peoples. Thus says HaShem, Who gathers the scattered of Israel — more will I gather upon him and those of his who have already been gathered.” (Isaiah 56:7).
In other words, in the world of truth, where everything belongs to G-d (as opposed to the world of the lords of the land, where everything is falsehood) the pride of place goes to those who weekly take on the discipline of Shabbat, abstaining from every form of the 39 forbidden labors as explained by the sages, in order to receive the holiness of the day.
It is in strange contrast that the observance of Shabbat and the Shemittah in the Land of Israel are today matters of contention, with a majority of the population apparently not against blatant violation and defiance of the Shabbat, which is publicly favored by leading judges, politicians and commentators.
In order to save Israel, there needs to be a full-scale international program to explain to Jews, Christians, Muslims and people of other faiths that the observance of Shabbat and Shemittah by true Israelites, with the support of gentiles, is in fact the very key to bringing prosperity and blessing into the entire world.
The observance of Shabbat and of Shemittah is an art-form, in which man submits himself to a code which focuses his mind on the ways we interact with and manipulate the environment on the days of the week and during the non-Sabbatical years.
It is through abstinence from manipulating the environment for one day of the week that we learn how to elevate our activities on the other six days, and we turn our daily work into the work of building a sanctuary of holiness around us here in this world. Observance of Shabbat and Shemittah enhance our respect for the natural world around us and for the various grades and levels of life and being. The Shemittah teaches respect for the environment and ecology.
Shabbat is the key to the entire redemption: “If Israel will keep two Shabbosos, the Son of David will come immediately.”
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Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum