Emor, this week’s portion, focuses on the Priesthood and rules and regulations that concern their function as it relates to the sacrificial cult in the Temple. Purity was a major concern, as chapter 21 asserts and the opening verses underscore this ideal : “God said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: no one shall defile himself (or become impure” for any person amongst his people.” (Leviticus 21:1). Tradition has interpreted this as the prohibition of “Kohenim” to be contact with the dead, with certain exceptions. That would make the priest “tameh”, or impure, or, in some translations. defiled. One who is of this special class of people, priests, must not be “tameh” in any way. With teh destruction of the 2d Temple in 70 CE and the elimination of the sacrificial cult, and thus the role of the priesthood, we can easily interpret some of these instructions in a symbolic sense. This, if we are all holy, containing a segment of the sacred in each soul, how do we “serve” that sense of God? If we are all a “kingdon of priests”, what does that mean for our actions as a human being?
So what of this idea of “tameh”? How do we live a life that represents the values of our ethical tradition in a world which seems to mock them? Judaism is not a religious civilization that touts withdrawl from the world. The entire system of “mitzvoth”, as elucidated in detail in last week’s portion, emphasizes being of the world and in it. The key is Torah study, in which is found the guidlines for living a life of ethics and purity. Involvement in the world is a key aspect of who we are. After all, who of us has not heard (or preached) a sermon or more on the value of “tikkun olom”, the saving or repair of the world.
But what can someone do who, as they age, may not be able to be as active as they desire? They may, due to a variety of issues, not even be able to study Torah? Do they just retreat? The mood of our tradition builds on the value of engagement with people. We know people who cannot devote their life to Torah study. Judaism approaches this with the understanding that there are countless oppportunities to “serve” by doing so, we act out the values of our tradition. For the person who is aging and may not be able to attend study or, due to physical limitations, be in the world, out society still has opportunities for someone to engage in the world and in the actions that symbolize what it means to do “mitzvoth”. When our portion says that the priests shall not be “defiled” due to anyone, we can spin that, perhaps, by seeing in that command, a challenge that each of us, as manifestations of the sacred, are being called to do whatever we can, according to our ability, to counter the impurities of the world in which we live. We are called not to be “tameh” by people or things that defile our world. Our job is to act upon that command, each in our own way.
Rabbi Richard F Address