September 23, 2018

TABLE FOR FIVE: Five Takes on the Weekly Parsha, Emor

PARSHA: EMOR, LEVITICUS 22:18-21

Speak unto Aaron, and to his sons, and unto all the children of Israel, and say unto them: Whosoever he be of the house of Israel, or of the strangers in Israel, that bringeth his offering, whether it be any of their vows, or any of their freewill-offerings, which are brought unto the Lord for a burnt-offering; that ye may be accepted, ye shall offer a male without blemish, of the beeves, of the sheep, or of the goats. But whatsoever hath a blemish, that shall ye not bring; for it shall not be acceptable for you. And whosoever bringeth a sacrifice of peace-offerings unto the Lord in fulfilment of a vow clearly uttered, or for a freewill-offering, of the herd or of the flock, it shall be perfect to be accepted; there shall be no blemish therein.

Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn
B’nai David-Judea Congregation

“Any person” — Jews and non-Jews — may bring an offering to God’s Mishkan (Rashi, Vayikra 22:25). And on the other hand, we see that the parameters of what this offering must be are quite strict: “any animal with a blemish” will not be acceptable for you. Why does God simultaneously open his Mishkan to all, and close it — limiting what may be brought into it?

In doing so, God reveals two powerful Jewish values that apply in the Mishkan and in our lives: inclusion and exclusion. We all live in the tension between the two on a daily basis. We are called to be welcoming — opening our hearts, homes and beyond to anyone who wants to share in the holy endeavor of serving God, as well as to anyone who needs us. We also are called to establish moral and spiritual standards, follow Jewish legal guidelines, uphold communal norms that unite us and distinguish us from the rest of the world.

In this tension, there is a profound wisdom: The Torah does not choose between these two values, but integrates them both into our worship of God. The trick is to know when we must live in both at once, and when we must draw from one more than the other. How we apply the tools of inclusion and exclusion — for better and for worse — will define our holiness and our fulfillment of God’s will.

Rabbi Drew Kaplan

I am often surprised at how easy return policies are these days. No longer does the customer need to offer a specific reason why he or she is returning an item to the store. Whether the item to be returned has a rip, a hole, is discolored, smelly or has some other defect, it will be accepted. While growing up, I thought an item had to have a defect to qualify for a store’s return guidelines. Nowadays, return policies often don’t require a reason for the return. The whim of the customer is sufficient.

When bringing animal offerings, God is requesting the children of Israel bring defect-free animal offerings. Although one could say that God does not wish to be bothered to have to return the item, we could also look at this expectation from another perspective.

The requirement that the offering be “pleasing to us” also prompts us to consider what a blemished offering says about us and our standards. We are the ones bringing the offering — whether native-born or otherwise. Our offering reflects on us. Whether one works in selling goods or in selling services, offering substandard products should never be an aspiration. Taking pride in what we have to offer is pleasing to us. That is an appropriate aspiration.

In everything we offer to fellow humans or to God, we should strive to make the offering pleasing to them and to us, as well.

Allison Josephs
Jew in the City/Project Makom

This parsha is intense. Stoning, harlots, blasphemy. As an Orthodox Jew who chose this lifestyle in her teens, I skim a parsha like this and think, “Wait, what did I sign up for?” Then I get to the end and see maybe the most misunderstood line from the Torah and suddenly feel better.

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” People think that this means that the punishment for damaging someone’s eye is to have the same done to the perpetrator, but that is not what is going on here.

The Talmud tells us that the punishment is actually monetary restitution. So why then does the Torah make it seem like it’s a literal part that’s exchanged?

According to Maimonides, while we would never harm someone’s body, the person who caused the damage should realize how serious destroying a body part is, lest a rich guy go around poking out eyes and handing out cash.

Which brings me back to the first issue — my discomfort with the topics of the parsha. I made the mistake of just picking up the book and expecting to understand it right away. But the Torah is not meant to be read in a peripheral way. In an era of sound bites, we often make the mistake of treating the Torah similarly. But if we do, not only do we grossly misunderstand it, we also miss the chance to experience its richness and all of its layers.

Rabbi Daniel Bouskila
Sephardic Educational Center

While the term “ger” literally is translated as “stranger,” halachah eventually came to use that term for converts, that unique class of dedicated individuals who willingly enter the covenant and become part of the Jewish people. With “ger” meaning “convert,” this week’s parsha welcomes converts to participate in some of the most important rituals in the Torah — the sacrifices and offerings: “When any man of the house of Israel, or the converts (ger) amongst them, presents a burnt offering as his offering for any of the votive, or any freewill offerings that they offer to the Lord.” As a sign of unity between those originally of “the house of Israel” and “the converts amongst them,” the Talmud (Menachot 104b) comments on the Torah’s use of the word “they,” saying that the fact that the Torah formulates the verse as “they offer” (asher yakrivu) teaches “that these offerings may be brought jointly.” The born Jew and the convert stand in unison to bring a sacred offering unto God. In his book on the talmudic sage Hillel, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin discusses Hillel’s welcoming attitude toward converts, stating that we need to adopt Hillel’s attitudes today: “The (welcoming) approach I am advocating is consistent, I believe, not only with Hillel’s teachings, but also with that of the late Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ben-Zion Uziel, who argued for a policy of greater openness to potential converts.” The Torah welcomes the convert, so did Hillel, and so did Rabbi Uziel. It’s our turn.

Eli Fink
Jewish Journal

I always thought it was quite snobby of God to accept only perfectly unblemished animals. Could it be that physical imperfections are displeasing to God? Like a cosmic Hercule Poirot returning his breakfast eggs because they are not perfectly symmetrical, as seen in the recent “Murder on the Orient Express” film?

Recently, my son asked me about “A Separate Peace” by John Knowles — one of my favorite books — a brilliant parable about adolescence and life. One message of the book is that there is no place for perfection in our imperfect world. We all have flaws and we are all broken in some way. All the characters in the book are flawed except for the exceptional Phineas. He is perfect. Phineaes is not for this world — so he dies. Our world is for the broken people.

Sin happens when we forget that imperfection is normal. No one is perfect and our goal should not be perfection. Instead, our goal should be to always struggle with our imperfections and never to give up on improving ourselves.

That is why we sacrifice only physically perfect animals to God. Like Phineas, they are not for this world. Our world is a world of people who make mistakes and have flaws. When we need to repent, we sacrifice a symbol of this mirage of perfection to remind ourselves that we are perfectly imperfect in every way. We send our fantasy of perfection to God so that we may remain in this world to continue our holy work of living.