Parashat Emor

By Margaret Frisch Klein

“What, you didn’t call, you didn’t write.” We’ve all heard the stereotypical Jewish mother jokes. There is some truth in them. Mothers like to be called. I know. I am one. This year as we celebrate Mother’s Day, I wish that I still had a mother to call. You may not think that Mother’s Day is a Jewish holiday. However, the principles come directly from our Jewish tradition – right from this week’s Torah portion.

This week’s parashah tells us how the priests should behave, about the holiness of Shabbat and the holidays, and about just punishments. What is the connection between these topics? All of them are about creating kedushah, a life of holiness, and showing kavod, honor.

We are not like the ancient Israelites. We no longer have a priestly class or the Temple in which to sacrifice. Since the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem we are told to make our own homes a mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary with us as the priests. It is incumbent on the whole family to prepare to greet Shabbat by readying the house, by cleaning and cooking and making it special. It is how we set aside this time, Shabbat, and make it holy. Part of what is created in the process is sh’lom bayit, peace in the house.

All too frequently it falls to the mother to organize Shabbat preparations. She is then rewarded with the reading of Eishet Chayil, a Woman of Valor, from Proverbs 31. My mother didn’t like this passage – it offended her feminist sensibilities. In my home, I use it as a personal check list.

The role of the mother organizing is not limited to Shabbat dinners and overseeing children’s homework. Mothers have been organizing peace rallies, fighting for economic justice, working to save the environment and to make the world a better place for their children and their children’s children. Mother’s Day is not another Hallmark holiday. It was started by Julia Ward Howe as a “peacenik” holiday, a day when she implored other mothers to work for peace and end the Civil War because she did not want to send another son off to die. The original Proclamation of Mother’s Peace Day reads in part:

“Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
“Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession

This is exactly what the end of our Torah portion talks about when it describes a revolutionary limit on punishments. Known as “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” the text tells us that for the death of an animal, one makes restitution. For humans the punishment is like for like, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life, regardless of whether the perpetrator is an Israelite or a stranger. The rabbis then reinterpreted this verse.

The Talmud teaches us in Bava Kama 83b-84a that “Eye for eye, life for life, and not a life and an eye for an eye… it would sometimes happen that an eye and a life would be taken for an eye, for in the process of blinding him he might die!” Instead of demanding what the simple level of the text suggests – the rabbis had a radical idea -ascribe monetary values to these injuries, even life.

Similarly, Julia Ward Howe argued that there should not be a literal demand for an eye for eye and tooth for tooth. In her mind, it is not effective, “to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs,” since “The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.” Instead, she urges us, especially the mothers, to become pursuers of peace. While we create sh’lom bayit, when we recognize that our homes are the mikdash me’at, it cannot stop at the door to our homes. We are called upon to reach beyond ourselves and into our world to pursue peace, to actively run after it and chase it, not just seek it.

So honor your mother. Call her. Read her Eishet Chayil. Bring her flowers. Make her breakfast in bed. Take her out to dinner. She’ll like that. But don’t stop there. As a mother I say to you, commit to work for peace. That is the gift I want for Mother’s Day and that’s how I will be spending my Mother’s Day this year – at a peace rally. Then I will make the words of this parashah and the memory of my mother, a peace activist herself, come alive. Then I will I live up to my role of mother to my own daughter.


Margaret Frisch Klein is a rabbinical student at AJR.