Torah Lights on Emor in the Diaspora, Behar in Israel

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

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin


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.

Behar: “And you shall count for yourselves seven cycles of Sabbatical years , seven years, seven times… forty-nine years… you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim freedom throughout the land for all its inhabitants; it shall be the Jubilee year for you.” (Leviticus 25:8-10)

This commandment to count seven cycles of Sabbatical years leading up to the 50th Jubilee year of proclaiming freedom throughout the land, is clearly reminiscent of the biblical commands we read last week (Parshat Emor): “Count for yourselves [from the day of your bringing the barley ‘omer wave offering] seven complete weeks… you shall count fifty days…” from the day after our exodus from Egypt until the Festival of the first fruits (bikkurim), the festival commemorating the Revelation of God’s Torah at Sinai (Lev. 23:15-17).

What is the significance of this striking parallelism between the counting of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot and the counting of the seven sabbatical years leading up to the Jubilee year? What is the true message behind the daily count of sefirat ha’omer, the period which we are currently marking?

There are three words which express the concept of freedom: hofeshdror and herutHofesh appears in the Book of Exodus (21:2) in the context of the Hebrew slave leaving the homestead of his owner; at the end of his sixth year of employ he becomes (hofshi hinam), “completely free,” without any obligation whatsoever to his former master.

The second word, dror, has just been cited in our present reading of Behar, in which “freedom” (dror) is to be proclaimed throughout the land on the advent of the Jubilee year.

But the Festival of Passover, which celebrates our exodus from Egyptian servitude, is referred to by our Sages as zman herutenu, the time of our herut – a non-biblical word with Aramaic roots that connotes freedom. Why do our Sages pass over the two biblical Hebrew words hofesh and dror in describing our Festival of Freedom in favor of herut?

In his illuminating study Escape from Freedom, the philosopher and political theorist Erich Fromm (1900-1980) distinguishes between freedom from something and freedom forsomething. The former—the mere ridding oneself of duties and obligations—will, at best, produce a monotonous existence of boredom, aimlessness, and sometimes even depression; at worst, it will lead to alcohol and drug addiction, wild licentiousness and even criminal acts of depravity.  Many societies would rather succumb to a totalitarian regime of enslavement rather than risk the challenges of the responsibility of freedom.

It is from this vantage point that Viktor Frankl (1905-1997), author of From Death-Camp to Existentialism and founder of the branch of psychoanalysis which he calls “logotherapy,” insists that the most essential human drive is not a search for pleasure, as Freud would maintain, or a search for power, as Adler and Jung suggest. Rather, it is the search for meaning, the human need to carve out a life of significance and worthwhile purpose. Freedom from enslavement must be linked indelibly with the belief of the individual that he/she is empowered to forge for him/herself a life dedicated to an important goal and purpose.

Hence, our Bible begins with the creation of the world, positing that every human being is created “in the image of God,” with a portion of the Lord on High within the very essence of his/her being,” so that he/she becomes commanded (and thereby empowered) to “develop the earth and preserve it,” to “perfect the imperfect world in the Kingship of the Divine” (Gen. 1:27; 2:7, 15 and the Aleinu prayer).

By reliving God’s primordial week of creation during our human weekly cycle of “working the world” for six days and resting in God’s presence on the seventh, we hopefully rekindle our task to perfect the world as God’s partners every single week! And hofesh is our freedom of choice not to do whatever we wish but rather to choose good over evil, God over Satan, creation over destruction.
Hence the word dror is used to express the period of human perfection, redemption (ge’ula), described in our Jubilee year, when all slaves will be freed, when everyone’s land will provide sufficient produce for all, when all debts will be rescinded, when everyone will be returned to their ancestral homestead, when all the needy of the world will be sustained by their communities. Dror is the purpose for which Israel and humanity was created; the society and world which Israel and humanity must recreate.

Our Sages refer to the time of our liberation from Egyptian enslavement as herut, which derives from the Hebrew ahrayut, responsibility: the responsibility of freedom for, the responsibility of accepting the formidable task of partnership with the Divine, the responsibility of protecting our brothers (ahim), the responsibility of protecting every stranger (aher) who is also our brother under God, the responsibility of going first and saying “aharai” (after me), and the responsibility of bringing the world to its aharit hayamim, the final stage of redemption, the Messianic Age.

And so, as soon as we became free, we started to count; only for a free person does every day count, only for a free person is every day fraught with infinite possibilities of productivity and meaning. We count until we receive our Torah, which is our blueprint for the creation of a perfected world.