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Parshat Emor

May 8, 2020

Shabbat Shalom BBYO, I am Jake Chansky from Evergreen Region. This week’s Torah portion is Parshat Emor, the eighth reading in the book of Leviticus. In Emor, G-d passes down laws to the Israelites through the mouth of Moses. I like to divide it into three sections: An outline of the laws imposed on the Jewish priests, or Kohanim; the setting of many important dates in the Jewish calendar, including Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Passover; and an explanation of a few laws applying to the Israelites as a whole, including the punishments for blasphemy and murder. When I first read Emor, I was disturbed by the laws regarding disabilities that were given to the Kohanim. In fact, to me those ancient laws were downright discriminatory. This was not the first time I have had this reaction to readings from the Torah, and in fact many Parshiot I have read have, in some way, contradicted my personal values. The world is a constantly changing place, and a three thousand-year-old text will never fit society perfectly. However, I can accept the Torah because Judaism as a whole is not a static religion, but rather one that evolves and grows along with the world. The Jewish principle of “l’dor v’dor” (from generation to generation) means the passing of tradition, knowledge, and ideology on from a past people to the people who will follow in their place. I believe in learning and preserving the culture of our ancestors, but even more strongly I believe in improving and building upon that culture.

The second segment of the Parsha reflects the cyclical nature with which Jews view the passing of time. Jewish tradition is filled with cycles, and this Torah portion is no exception. G-d lays out the dates for many annual holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the yearly cycle. The counting of the Omer, a cycle in and of itself that we are currently in, is also described in Emor. Previously I brought up the principle of l’dor v’dor because it too is the result of the periodic nature of time in Judaism. However, cyclical does not mean circular. We Jews live in cycles, but we do not return to the same point every Yom Kippur, or every Sabbath, or every generation. Although we preserve our tradition and honor our ancestors, we also progress and improve our culture. All of these are important values, and although they may appear contradictory, they all have a place in the Jewish way of life.

Although it is not mentioned in the reading, Parshat Emor makes me think about the progression of the Jewish people. In the laws for the Kohanim, Moses stresses that any Kohen with a disability, whether inflicted or from birth, may not approach the altar, offer sacrifices, or fulfill any of the typical priestly duties. I consider myself an advocate for people with disabilities, and especially for intellectually disabled people. I participate in unified soccer, a program that allows people with intellectual disabilities to play sports by having teams of athletes and partners. I have gotten to know and bond with many people for whom I would be infuriated if somebody suggested that they were any less holy than I, or not made in the image of G-d as I am. I don’t take the Torah as a step-by-step instruction manual to life, or as a completely literal text. Rather than taking away from Parshat Emor that disabilities or defects detract from the holiness of a Jew, I take away that Judaism is ever-changing, improving, and expanding. The Torah is an amazing tool to help Jews to live in a way that honors G-d, and I believe it was given to the Jewish people to interpret in a way that can better the world and ourselves.

I am considering these topics in light of the recent events that transpired in New York, at the funeral of Rabbi Chaim Mertz. Rabbi Mertz was a well known, and extremely admired individual in the Satmar Hasidic community. When he passed away from the coronavirus, plans were almost immediately put in place by congregation leaders and the NYPD for a public funeral, with the primary goal of respecting social distancing guidelines. Sadly, the funeral quickly became out of hand, and the police as well as mayor De Blasio had to intervene. De Blasio’s response on Twitter, issuing a warning “to the Jewish Community” despite it being the actions of a small group of people, was utterly unacceptable. However, Judaism is always improving, moving forward, and adapting to the times. In that regard, all Jews should be a model for how a person should act, and should be deeply disappointed any time we have fallen short of that. Whether it be the inclusion of all people despite our many differences, or the adherence to public health guidelines, we as Jews always better ourselves, and change with the times. We are not the same as we were three thousand years ago, and we are not the same as we were three months ago. Parshat Emor embodies the flexible and adaptable resilience of the Jewish people.

Jake Chansky, Evergreen Region Dover

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