This week’s portion, Emor, covers a wide variety of issues. We see a discussion about the role and position of the priests, a detailed discussion of the ritual calendar, rules about people who misuse and utter God’s name and additional social laws including the famous repetition of what we know as lex talionis: life for life..eye for eye..etc (Lev.24:18, 19, 20) Much of the commentaries on the portion look at the calendar and the one who curses and the discussion on how “eye for eye” has been interpreted. So, let us look at the very beginning of the portion as it also speaks to our generation in a way that is fitting with much of our ethical tradition.
The word emor, from which we take the name of the portion, has as its root meaning “to speak” or “say”. Rabbi Richard Levy makes the point in a recent commentary that the word appears three different ways in the first verse of the portion (21:1) . He notes that that the word appears once in the past tense, once in the imperative and finally in the future. (“God said to Moses, speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them…) Levy states that this “was to emphasize that this was a portion about speaking”. He then cites a Rashi commentary which suggests that “the second use of say is a direct address that Moses is to make to Aaron’s sons, and the third is an instruction that Aaron’s sons are to speak to the next generation. It suggests that whatever parents are told cannot rest with them, but must be carried on to their children, who will, by implication, carry the instruction forward to their children.” I read this commentary by Rabbi Levy ( see www.urj.org) and thought of how words and what we say can have such an influence on future generations. It immediately triggered that sense of legacy. We Boomers have lived long enough to see the power of words, of what we said as parents, of what we remember hearing from our parents and now what we may say, if we are so blessed, to our grandchildren. Those words do have resonance and so often are tucked away in our memories. Remember that song from South Pacific that states that we have to be taught to hate? What we say and how we say it does have an impact.
Rabbi Twerski in his “Living Each Week” echoes this view on the power of words in a comment he makes on a passage from Pirke Avot (5:22) which states that we should occupy ourselves with Torah for everything is in it. He relates this to 21:1 and the actions of the priests and comments that this is also about decency and our words must respect the sensitivities of others. He is linked, I think, to Rabbi Levy when he notes that: “To achieve this level of consideration for others, we must not only watch our words, but we must think before we talk. We must think about the other person and his particular sensitivities, and we must not think only about what we say but how we say it, in order to avoid offending him” (p.259) Emor then, “speaks” to way more than the priests of ancient Israel, but, like much of Torah, speaks directly to us in our times to remind us that words do have meaning and consequences and those words are often “heard” from generation to generation.
Rabbi Richard F Address