Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Emor 5782

Parashat Emor 5782

May 13, 2022

Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah

A D’var Torah for Parashat Emor
By Rabbi Cantor Sam Levine (’19)

You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy (Lev. 19:2)

This is the thesis statement of what Bible scholars call “the Holiness Code” (Lev. 17-26). It is also, arguably, the thesis statement of the Book of Leviticus, and, one might further argue, of the entire Torah.

Of course the statement begs the question, what does it mean to be holy?

We may find a clue in a pair of verses from this week’s sedra.

An ox or a sheep or a goat, when it is born, shall remain seven days under its mother, and from the eighth day and forward it will be accepted as a near-offering, as a fire-offering to YHWH. And an ox or a sheep—it and its young you are not to slaughter on one day. (22:27-28)

These verses have commonly been understood as teaching valuable ethical lessons to b’nei Yisrael and are on a par with (at least) two other mitzvot in the Torah: the mitzvah of shilu’ah haken (the injunction in parashat Ki Tetzei to send off the mother bird before taking her eggs or her fledglings, Deut. 22:6-7) and the thrice-repeated You are not to boil a kid in the milk of its mother (Exod. 23:1934:26Deut. 14:21). There is something morally repugnant, this line of thinking goes, in tearing away a suckling from its mother to be taken to slaughter, even for so noble a purpose as sacrifice; and likewise, the idea of killing mother and child on the same day is morally beyond the pale. Numerous sources follow this thread. Maimonides, commenting on our verse, notes that “the pain of the animals under such circumstances is very great. There is no difference in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings” (Guide for the Perplexed 3:48).

A much earlier text, from Bereishit Rabbah (76:6), also reads the text as being about compassion and connects it with the mother/egg/fledgling commandment from Devarim. The midrash builds on Ya’akov’s statement in Genesis 32:12, when he fears that his brother means to kill him and his family: “Pray save me from the… hand of Esav!… lest he come and strike me down, mothers and children alike!” In the midrash, Ya’akov cries out to God, appealing to God’s compassion:

…but You said “you are not to take away the mother along with the children” (Deut. 22:6). Another reading: “…lest he come and strike me down, mothers and children alike!” but You said “And an ox or a sheep—it and its young you are not to slaughter on one day.” (22:27-28)

Reading the quality of compassion into our two verses is appealing, beautiful, and meaningful, but it is by no means universal. Perhaps the first verse, about the suckling remaining “seven days under its mother” has nothing to do with the mother-child bond. Sefer Hahinukh 293:2 (an anonymous 13th c. work enumerating and explicating the 613 commandments), unpacks this mitzvah, making a connection between the manner in which a person performs a deed and the effect that performance has on him or her: to offer a less-than-perfect offering to God could have a detrimental effect on the offeror, and “the sacrifice cannot be considered perfect until the animal is eight days old, since previous to that it is not fit for anything, and no one will covet it or partake of it or do business with it, or give it as a gift” (translation from Nehama Leibowitz, Vayikra, 382). Seen in this light, the mitzvah comports with what precedes it in the parasha, namely, the requirement of perfection in both what is being offered (the sacrifice) and the one who is performing the sacrifice (the priests).

The Sefer Hahinukh source places the emphasis on the perfection of the animal and tangentially notes the effect on the one bringing the sacrifice. Ovadiah Sforno, in his comment on 22:27, digs in deeper on the relationship between the offeror and “perfection.” Sforno states that “[The blemished animal] (is invalid as a sacrifice to God) because “the Rock, His work is perfect” (Deut 32:4). He desires the perfection and completeness of the offering and of the one who offers it; the offering must possess its natural completeness, and the one who offers it must possess divine completeness [sh’leimuto haElohi], to be like his creator as much as it is possible…” (translation from Artscroll Sforno ed., italics added by SL).

A passage from the Talmud, however, is less sanguine about any of these explanations. A discussion in Megillah 25a describes three instances where a sh’liah tzibbur, a prayer leader, is “silenced,” (i.e. chastised for ad-libbing). The sages quickly explain the first two instances, but the third, a case where the prayer leader ad-libs “Your mercy is extended to a bird’s nest” (and in the following section, “You have shown mercy to animals through the verse ‘it and its young you are not to slaughter on one day’ – have mercy on us!”) is less clear to them: “What is the reason that they silence him?” Two explanations are given, the second of which is “because one transforms the attributes of the Holy Blessed One into expressions of mercy, and they are nothing but decrees.” In other words, reading mercy and compassion (or anything else, presumably) into these verses is presumptuous – we observe these commandments only because God has thus commanded us!

The Torah speaks to us on many planes. The old dictum from Bamidbar Rabbah (13:16), yesh shiv’im panim baTorah, suggests that there are a multiplicity of ways of understanding a text – that a single passage of Torah can yield many interpretations, but also that it can speak to different people on different levels. Our two verses from the parasha, thus, may teach us a valuable lesson about kedusha/holiness. They may be speaking to the ethical perfection of compassion and mercy; the physical perfection of the sacrifice; the mystical perfection of the “divine completeness” of the individual; or the ritual perfection of unquestioning observance. Any and all of these are expressions of God’s instruction to us, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” We all have access to holiness; it may just derive from different precincts – each according to her own path.
Sam Levine is the rabbi and cantor of East Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn. He received rabbinical ordination from AJR in 2019 and cantorial investiture from JTS in 2004.