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Parashat Emor 5780

May 8, 2020

A D’var Torah for Parashat Emor
By Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11)

A well-known midrash tells of Rabbi Yehoshua bemoaning the destruction of the Temple – “the place that atoned for Israel’s sins” – to his master, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. Rabbi Yohanan comforts his disciple with the observation that “we have another means of gaining atonement: through deeds of loving kindness, as it is written (Hosea 6:6) ‘I desire deeds of loving kindness, not sacrifice.’” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5)

Comforting as this midrash might be, it reduces the Temple to a single function: atoning for sin. Yet were this really its primary purpose, why are prayers for the Temple’s restoration so ubiquitous in our liturgy? As one who has ever uttered those prayers with discomfort, I think we need to look more deeply for the answer.

For many of us, our discomfort with the idea of the restoration of the Temple goes beyond our reticence about the animal sacrifices that were offered within its precincts. It extends to those who offered those sacrifices, the priests. As this week’s parashah, Emor, makes clear, the very institution of the priesthood can be troublesome to modern sensibilities. Priests, and especially the high priest, are severely limited in their observance of mourning rites (Leviticus 21:1-4, 10-11) and in marriage choices (Leviticus 22:7-8, 14-15). More troubling for us, priests are barred from their ministrations by any physical impairment or disability. They bear these restrictions because they have the responsibility of offering “the food of their God.” (Leviticus 21:6)

Between the discrimination and anthropomorphism, I share in the discomfort. Still, I cannot help feeling that the priests exist for a purpose that makes sense of it all.

That purpose, I believe, is to bring us near to God. The priests are the point of connection between Israel and God – God the creator and God the redeemer. As such, they must represent the purity of the divine image that is the human form. In this sense, a priest stands before God, not as an individual, but as a sacrifice – as much a sacrifice as those that he brings to the altar. The priest is the sacrifice of the individual – in both her brilliance and her challenges – in favor of the universal essence from which all that brilliance and challenge springs. Thus, an Israelite should look at the high priest and see not an Aaron or an Eleazar or a Hyrcanus, but a reflection of the divine form that allows humanity to approach God in the first place.

Absent priests, people look to their cantors and rabbis to be the embodiment of nearness to God. Yet we know well the sacrifices – of our individuality, or our ability to relate to others – necessary to achieve that exalted state. Humbled by the greatness of the challenge, we often seek to offer instead the loving kindness of which Rabbi Yohanan spoke. And in this injured world in which we find ourselves, we witness every day how dependent we all are on such deeds.

And yet, I sense we need more. I sense that behind all our prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple is an inchoate yearning to be near to God. For some of us, the danger inherent in such nearness makes those prayers uncomfortable. But we utter them anyway because we need to.

Four weeks ago, I ended my Pesah seder as I end every seder I lead, by singing Adir Hu: “Mighty is He To build His house, soon, quickly, in our day.” I have always loved the song’s sweet melody and plaintive air. Perhaps it was our diminished gathering, but this year, as we sang through its acrostic of verses, I found myself choking up, indeed, on the verge of tears. For the first time in many years of singing this song, I felt its longing so keenly.  It was not, as Rabbi Yehoshua suggested, a place that atoned for my sins for which I longed. It was, rather, for a place that would bring me close to God. In these challenging days, may those of us who seek it, find such a place – quickly and in our day.
Rabbi Bruce Alpert (AJR ’11) is Rabbi of Beth Israel Synagogue in Wallingford, CT