Ohr Torah: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim in Diaspora, Emor in Israel

Torah Lights from Efrat, Gush Etzion, in the Judean Hills.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin


Achrei Mot-Kedoshim:  “You must surely instruct your colleague, so that you not bear the brunt of his sin” (Leviticus 19:17)

Judaism teaches us that “every Israelite is responsible for the other.” Except for the State of Israel, where the Jewish population continues to grow, Jews in the rest of the world suffer from internal “hemorrhaging.”

How do we “inspire” our Jewish siblings so that they remain within —or return to—our Jewish peoplehood? We have recently celebrated the festival of Passover, and we are “counting” each day towards the festival of Shavuot. The Hebrew term for the counting issefira, a word pregnant with meaning. Its root noun is the Hebrew sappir, which is the dazzling blue—as the Bible records immediately following the Revelation at Sinai: “Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel then went up. And they saw the God of Israel, beneath whose ‘feet’ was something akin to the creation of a sapphire stone, like the essence of the heavens as to its purity” (Exodus 24: 9-10).

From this perspective, the days of our counting are a period of spiritual growth and development, of a connection between Passover and Shavuot. But when and how does this spiritual journey begin? It begins with Passover, God’s encounter with His nation Israel at its conception. And the Hebrew sefira (counting/ sapphire) is also based on the Hebrew noun sippur, a tale, a story, a re-counting – the very essence of the Passover Seder evening experience: “And you shall tell (haggada, telling a story) your child on that day saying…” (Exodus 13:8) The Israelites came into Egypt as a family, the seventy descendants of Jacob. Hence the recounting of the story of our enslavement and eventual redemption is the recounting of family history. A nation is a family writ large: in a family, there are familial memories of origins; in a family there is a sense of commonality and community togetherness; in a family there are special foods and customs, special holidays and celebrations; in a family there are mandated values and ideals, that which is acceptable and that which is unacceptable “in our family”; and in a family there is a heightened sense of a shared fate and shared destiny.

Eda is the biblical word for community (literally “witness”), and every community attempts to recreate a familial collegiality. The relationship within the family is largely horizontal (towards each other ) rather than vertical (connected to a transcendent God). And familial rites of togetherness are largely governed by family customs rather than by a Divinely ordained legal code.

Most importantly in families – as well as communities – every individual counts (once again, sefira).

Passover is our family-centered, communal festival, at the beginning of our calendar, at the very outset of our history, at the early steps towards our sefira march. On that first Passover we had not yet received our Torah from God, and we had not yet entered our Promised Land.

The Passover Sacrifice (Ex. 12) emphasizes our willingness to sacrifice for our freedom from slavery—our sacrifice of the lamb which was a defiant act of rebellion against the idolatrous Egyptian slave-society—and it attests to our uncompromising belief in human freedom and redemption even before we became a faith ordained  at Mount Sinai. In order for every person/community to really count, large communities must be subdivided into smaller—and more manageable—familial and extra-familial units, “a lamb for each household” or several households together.

Special foods, special stories and special songs define and punctuate the close-knit nature of the event.

The ticket of admission is that you consider yourself a member of the family and wish to be counted as such; this entitles you to an unconditional embrace of love and acceptance, to inclusion in the family of Israel.

The rasha (wicked child) of the Haggadah is the one who seems to exclude himself from the family – and even s/he is to be invited and included! How do we engage our unaffiliated  Jews so that they do not defect and fall away from us? We must embrace them as part of our family, love them because we are part of them and they are part of us, regale them with the stories, songs and special foods which are expressed in our biblical and national literature that emerged from our challenging fate and our unique destiny, share with them our vision and dreams of human freedom and peace, and accept them wholeheartedly no matter what.

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A personal family postscript: My paternal grandfather was an idealistic and intellectual communist. He ate on Yom Kippur and truly believed that religion “was the opiate of the masses.” Nevertheless, he conducted a Passover Seder each year—which I attended as a young child—with matza, maror, haroset, and the first part of the Haggada. He would add passages from the Prophets, the Talmud and Shalom Aleichem which dealt with consideration for the poor and underprivileged, and checked that I could space my fingers properly for the Priestly Benediction, cautioning me to understand that the blessing was for world peace.

Despite my tender years, I noticed that there were still bread and rolls in the house which, if a grandchild wished, he received. I couldn’t understand the contradiction.

And then I was riding on a train with my grandfather, and there were two elderly ultra-Orthodox Jews sitting opposite us, speaking Yiddish. Two young toughs walked into our compartment and began taunting the hassidim.

At the next stop my grandfather – who was fairly tall and strong – lunged forward, grabbed the toughs, and literally threw them out the open door. When he returned to his seat, I asked, “But grandpa, you’re not at all religious!” He looked at me in dismay. “What difference does that make? They are part of our family—and I am part of their family!” Then I understood…

Emor: And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel” (Leviticus 22:32).

The portion of Emor opens with a strange commandment to the kohanim-priests of Israel: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the priests children of Aaron, and tell them: “Do not defile yourselves by contact with the dead of the nation.”‘” (Leviticus 21:1). The Bible then lists the exceptions to this rule.  A Kohen may defile himself only for the burial of his wife, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother and his unmarried sister.

Judaism is not chiefly concerned with death and the hereafter; rather, it is principally engaged with life in the here-and-now. Our major religious imperative is not how to ease the transition from this world to the next, but how to improve and repair our own society. What does seem strange, however, is that our same portion goes on to command (as quoted above): “You shall not desecrate the name of my holiness; I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel” (Lev. 22:32).

Our Talmudic sages derive from this verse the necessity of sacrificing one’s life-sanctifying the name of God-for the sake of the commandments of the Bible. Jews must give up their lives rather than transgress any of the three major prohibitions of murder, sexual immorality or adultery; in times of persecution, Jews must die rather than publicly transgress even the simplest or most “minor” of Jewish laws, even a Jewish custom involving our shoelaces (B.T. Sanhedrin 74a,b). Our Talmudic Sages insist, however, that when Jews are not being persecuted, it is forbidden for Jews to forfeit their lives in order not to desecrate Shabbat, far better that they desecrate one Shabbat and remain alive to keep many Shabbatot. Then why command martyrdom at all? And the sad truth is that our history is filled with many sacred martyrs who gave up their lives in sanctification of the Divine Name.

The answer lies in the very juxtaposition of the law of priestly defilement emphasizing the importance of life, and the law of martyrdom enjoining death, within that same biblical portion. Yes, preservation of life is crucial and this world is the focus of the Jewish concern-but not life merely for the sake of breathing. Living, and not merely existing, means devoting one’s life to ideals and values that are more important than any individual life. We participate in eternity by dedicating our lives to the eternal values that will eventually repair the world and establish a more perfect society.

Hence we must value and elevate life, but always within the perspective of those principles which will lead us to redemption. Yes, “live by these [My laws],” but eternal life can only be achieved by a dedication which includes the willingness to sanctify God’s name with martyrdom, albeit only under very extreme circumstances.

But how can we justify martyrdom, even if only during periods of persecution, for the sake of a Jewish custom regarding our shoelaces? What can there possibly be about a shoelace which strikes at the heart and essence of our Jewish mission? The Talmudic commentary of the French and German sages of the 11th and 12th centuries, when many Jews were martyred by the Crusaders, suggest that the general custom in Rome and its numerous colonies during the second century was to wear white shoelaces. Jews, however, wore black shoelaces, as a memorial to the loss of our Holy Temple and the disappearance of Jewish national sovereignty. When Gentiles in times of persecution attempted to force Jews to wear white shoelaces-and thereby force the Jewish community to cease mourning for the loss of our national homeland-the Jew must respond with martyrdom (B.T. Sanhedrin 74b, Tosafot ad loc.).

My revered teacher Rav Joseph B. Solovetchik added a crucial point: There are many Jewish laws, decrees and customs which have developed from biblical times to the present, which Jews themselves do not always realize are truly vital for our national and religious preservation. The Gentiles, on the other hand, always do, because they-wishing to persecute and destroy us-strike at the jugular. Hence whatever they insist that we abandon, we must maintain even at the price of our lives! From this perspective, it becomes easier to understand why anti-Semitism expresses itself in unfair attacks on the free and democratic State of Israel, condemning us while championing the cause of our non-democratic enemies; we must focus on how crucial and vital the State of Israel is for Jewish survival today.

The memorials of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars quickly followed by Independence Day and Jerusalem Day must remind us that Israel is not merely a destination but is our destiny. Israel is not only the place of our survival, but it is the heart of our mission for world salvation, from whence the word of God-a God of life, love and peace-will spread to all of humanity.