The cure for anger: Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)


Life is not easy. In fact, at times it’s downright infuriating. Our natural tendency is to want to blame someone, and the easiest target is God. We may carry anger at HaShem for our entire lives. As a result, we miss out on decades of spiritual connectedness and comfort. 

There is another way, and the Ishbitzer Rebbe (Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner) uses this week’s parasha, Emor, as the answer. It contains a list of five kinds of negative thinking, in the form of rules for the high priest, matched with a framework for redirecting our thoughts when they arise, in the form of holidays. 

We can’t choose what pain we will experience day to day. We can, however, choose not to let ourselves feel alienated from the Holy One as a result, freeing us to remain open to God’s loving presence in our lives. The Ishbitzer shows us how.

First, the priest is told to avoid funerals, saying it will contaminate him. He cannot grieve in community, even for his own parents. How infuriating for him! For the Ishbitzer, this suggests existential frustration — the hopeless feeling that the world is a shattered place and we can’t fix a thing. We rage at God: “Why don’t You put things right?” 

The cure is Passover. Its core message is that God takes us out of Egypt, the narrow place, with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. We need never doubt that God will deliver us from our circumstances, and that the world is moving toward a time of Messianic perfection. Pesach tells us to have faith. Change can and will come.

Second, the priest must be unblemished: without disability or disease, injury or scar. This corresponds to the humiliation we feel about our own weaknesses and broken places. We wish we were more beautiful, more admired, more accomplished.

Shavuot is the remedy for this line of thought, the holiday when we commemorate receiving the Torah. Torah, it is said, heals all wounds and perfects all imperfections, because they don’t matter to God. A life of prayer and study, of spiritual attainment, helps us to let go of shallow understanding and to be who we are truly meant to be. Shavuot tells us we are perfect just the way we are. 

Third, a priest must rigorously guard his ritual purity, such as by marrying only a virgin. How infuriating for him to be so close to service and then to be made impure by his sexual relationships. This is the sadness of addictions and distractions. We are drawn to the things that seem to bring us relief from the anxiety of life. They may tamp down our loneliness and disappointments, but they push away God and truth in the process. We are left feeling numb, sick and spiritually dead. 

The cure is Rosh Hashanah. When the shofar is blown, the world starts over again afresh. The Book of Life opens before us, ready to receive the good news of our readiness to change our ways. Rosh Hashanah reminds us of our neshamah taharah, our eternally pure soul. 

Fourth, Emor speaks of ways in which the sacrifices themselves can be unworthy of ritual use. The owners of these offerings might cry out to God, asking why their hard-earned possessions should be judged inadequate. It’s so easy to fall into the self-righteousness of deprivation. “We deserve better!”

Yom Kippur comes to hand us a feeling of infinite riches. By abandoning our worldly pleasures and benefits for a day and focusing solely on God, we see our meager belongings take on a new, perfected light. Yom Kippur says, “I have plenty.”

And finally, the Ishbitzer sees the command for the Kohen to eat the thanksgiving offering “on that day” to point out our tendency to fret about what was or will be, rather than rejoice in what we have right now. We go through our days, flooded by memories and worries. Our thoughts convince us that they alone will bring relief, but they never do. Only by letting go and standing in awe and fear of the Holy One of Blessing can we bring our lives into focus. 

This is the teaching of Sukkot, z’man simchateinu, the time of our joy. This moment, this breath, is as flimsy as a leaf-covered hut. But it is God’s promise to protect and surround us, to give us joy and never to abandon us. Sukkot is presence. 

As we continue our counting of the Omer toward Shavuot, may the Ishbitzer’s Emor mindfulness practice give us the tools we need to release suffering, and to refine ourselves, like a silversmith pounding shiny bits together to form a whole, holy vessel for receiving Torah. 

Rabbi Avivah W. Erlick is president of L.A. Community Chaplaincy Services (LACommunityChaplaincy.com), a referral agency for professional chaplains and rabbis.

How to be a priest: Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)


Leviticus is the biblical book rabbis do not want you to read. Saturated with sacrificial minutiae and unsettling descriptions of ritual impurity, its countless sheep and goat offerings seem a more effective salve for insomnia than any woe that pains the heart. After all, what do wave offerings or incense recipes have in common with more substantive things, like wireless Internet or the smell of freshly brewed java in the morning?

Yet the reason why studying Leviticus is so often neglected is not because it seems boring or embarrassingly regressive. Au contraire; study of Leviticus is neglected because its contents are so revolutionary and radical that we fear giving the book anything more than a dutiful glance.

This week’s Torah Portion, Emor, begins with a command to the priestly caste that they avoid all contact with the dead, the exception being close relatives and kin. “And the Lord said unto Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say unto them: There shall none defile himself for the dead among his people” (Leviticus 21:1-2).

The law is in keeping with the general obligation that priests maintain the requisite strictures of purity and holiness. Indeed, the Sons of Aaron have already been warned not to serve in the Tabernacle while drunk (Leviticus 10:9); and they are given further rules prohibiting self-mutilation as well as strict limits about whom they can wed (Leviticus 21:4-7).

Yet if we think about this command a moment longer, it should strike us as being extraordinarily counterintuitive. The priests — Kohanim — are meant to be the spiritual leaders of Israel. Their sacred task is “to distinguish between holy and unholy, between impure and pure and to teach the children of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken unto Moses” (Leviticus 10:11). They are in essence the clerical heads — the rabbis — of the people. And yet, here they are expressly forbidden from officiating or even participating in perhaps what is one of the most trying and difficult of lifecycle events — the Jewish funeral. In almost all cases, they are banned from preparing the body for burial or even accompanying the family as they escort the departed to its final resting place. It seems fair to ask why this is so.

The Italian sage, Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (1475-1550), suggested that since it is the task of the priest to give honor and glory to God, it would be a grave violation of his charge to use his station to give honor to the dead (Sforno, Leviticus 21:5.6).

More recently, modern scholars have pointed to the immense chasm between the practices of ancient Egypt and those of Israel. In contrast to Israel, Egypt’s priests made funerary rites and rituals the single most important aspect of their religion. Embalming, mummification and numerous ceremonies accompanied entombing. To appreciate the centrality of Egyptian burial rites, consider that the pyramids were not built for the living, or think back to how Joseph was embalmed and entombed in Egyptian fashion at the end of Genesis.

Against this cultural milieu, Israel’s priests are abjured from making deities of the dead or even excessive mourning. Their task is to worship a living God and to sanctify the day-to-day life of Israel instead (Jacob Milgrom on Leviticus 21:1-5).

Yet, there is something unsatisfying with this answer, primarily because the Kohanim are absent from a whole number of other lifecycle events as well. A few weeks ago, we read the portion of Tazria, which decreed that the birthmother should avoid “entering the sanctuary or touching any holy thing” for some 40 to 80 days after birth (Leviticus 12:1-8). The mother, it seems, is bid to stay well away from the Temple’s priests.

One might expect a Kohen to carry out a circumcision, but here, too, no officiant is mentioned. “On the eighth day, let the flesh of his foreskin be circumcised” (Leviticus 12:3). Similarly, for marriage, the Torah makes no mention of any presiding prophet or priest (Deuteronomy 24:1). Remarkably, it was not until the early Middle Ages that an officiating rabbi became obligatory at weddings.

The question, then, is if a priest was not called upon to “hatch them, match them, or dispatch them,” then just who did the presiding over these lifecycle events? The answer, quite simply, was anyone. A father would likely have circumcised his son. A relative would see to proper burial. Learned wedding guests, or the groom, would ensure that the marriage was done according to the Laws of Moses.

Indeed this is but one reason why Leviticus is so radical.

The Italian commentator, Shadal (1800-1865), remarks that this idea is encapsulated by the phrase that Israel be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6): “Every Israelite is meant to have a personal ‘priest-like’ relationship with God.” Toward that end, perhaps it is time that laity and non-laity alike give Leviticus the attention it deserves.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who teaches in Los Angeles. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

Blasphemers No More: Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)


My sister just touched down in Israel. I can feel her elation way over here in California. Time stood still; there was silence. The land and the woman were one. She had returned home.

My sister made aliyah 22 years ago, with her then-husband and 1-year-old daughter. After building a life and birthing three more kids, they followed his dream and returned to America.

Fast forward 10 years, and after healing from the divorce and the bittersweet return of her two older children to Israel, my sister has returned to the Holy Land, if only for an extended Pesach pilgrimage.

In moments, my sister felt it again. She e-mailed: “… this so feels like home and I haven’t even arrived in my Israeli hometown of Karmiel. The smells of the bakeries, the sea, the air, the oranges. The taste of the food and coffee. Speaking Hebrew — it’s flowing well already. And soon, hugs of my dearest friends. I’ve made a life for myself on America’s East Coast … but it will never feel like home the way that Israel does.”

What is it about Israel that makes us feel so connected? Might it be a special spice or something in the air? Perhaps walking the stone pathways that our biblical ancestors traversed or witnessing the renewal of a once-lost nation? Or sensing the Holy One in the Holy Land. Or the way that kodesh v’chol (holy and regular), historical and contemporary, coexist everywhere.

This week, my sister enjoys Israel yom-yomi (day-to-day). Next week, Pesach. By the time you read this, she will be back in the States, connecting from afar with the land we love so much. Like the rest of us, she will wrestle with simplistic black-and-white portrayals of Israel in the press and in the Jewish world, and grapple with the urge to both kvell (praise) and kvetch (complain) about our beloved homeland.

Conveniently, America hosts a variety of organizations, each speaking about Israel, its status as an American ally and its place within the Jewish heart. Still, any oheiv Yisrael (lover of Israel) must tread carefully, because American Jews are a vociferous bunch, quick to declare this or that opinion to be kosher or, heaven forbid, to be anti-Zionist or worse, chillul HaShem, a blasphemy before God.

Once, arguments about how to relate to the Land were machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven. Today, in America, many have forgotten that eilu v’eilu divray Elohim chayim — this and that opinion are both the words of the living God. The self-appointed arbiters of Jewish truth condemn opinions about Israel that diverge from their own. They implicitly reference this week’s parasha, Emor: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard [his blasphemy] shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him” (Leviticus 24:14). Then they act dumbfounded when a Jew picks up a gun to kill the prime minister, or they remain silent when an Arab picks up a gun and kills a Jewish family just over the Green Line.

It is high time we American Jews take a “chill pill” and, while remaining unwaveringly committed to Israel’s security and safety, become very slow to invoke Torah’s condemnation of “blasphemer.” Israeli newspapers host a robust debate about everything imaginable. Israeli journalists and bloggers — not to mention Yosi Yisraeli on the Midrachov, Jerusalem’s outdoor pedestrian mall — argue vociferously, offering opinions that are quickly reviled here.

Our Israel is beautiful, precious and perfectly imperfect. It exists in a dangerous neighborhood. But we need to remember that most American Jews are cross-addicted to Israel. Some are AIPAC supporters out of a desire to ensure Israel’s close relations with our government even as they donate to the New Israel Fund to help Israel remain true to her Jewish and democratic ideals. Others invest heavily in Israeli technology while supporting J Street, one of the few places that openly and honestly talks about the plight of the Palestinians. Some enjoy Shabbat at the Kotel, davening with the various minyanim, while also finding inspiration in Israel’s 85+ Progressive and Masorti communities. Let us become more like most Israelis, accepting that an oheiv Yisrael can disagree profoundly without being among Emor’s blasphemers.

Remember, the love of Israel easily inflames our hearts and souls. My sister wrote: “We ate at a restaurant right on the beach. Mushroom and green olive pizza for my son; grilled cheese on a bagel for the youngest. I enjoyed the most delicious hummus I’ve had in a long time. That stuff from Whole Foods may be healthy, and Sabra hummus is closer, but nothing compares to the smooth, almost white creaminess of Israeli hummus with whole chickpeas, tehina, olive oil, lemon, and parsley on thick warm pita. That and a café hafuch, and I was one happy woman.”

May our love for Israel entice us to put away our sticks and stones, to kvell more, kvetch with compassion, and to treat both the kvellers and kvetchers with kavod (honor).

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. He is co-editor of a CCAR Journal issue on “New Visions of Jewish Community.” He blogs regularly at rabbipaul.blogspot.com and tweets @RabbiKip.

Lag B’Omer


OK. Now what’s an omer?

It is a unit of
measure — like a pound or a kilo. That is how sheaves of barley were measured. The Israelites were commanded to bring an omer of barley to the Temple on the second day of Passover. If you don’t believe me, read this week’s Torah portion, Emor. It says it right there. Then they were supposed to count 49 days from that day, until Shavuot. Lag B’Omer falls on the 33rd day of the counting of the omer. Get it?