Parshat Emor

Torah Reading for Week of May 3 – May 9, 2009

“Does G-d want us to be perfect?”

by Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, ’04
Director, The Jewish Community Chaplaincy Program of Jewish Family Service of New Mexico

Last week we learned how G-d wants us to behave in order to achieve holiness, but does G-d want us to be perfect? This week, two main themes dominate Parashat Emor: the holy class of Israelite leaders (the Cohanim and their peculiar restrictions), and the holy times, days and festivals with their unique observances.

The first section of the portion focuses on the priesthood, with special emphasis on the importance of priestly purity and on differentiating Cohanim from the rest of the community. Priests who have permanent physical defects, such as blindness or missing limbs, are not permitted to offer sacrifices, although their inherited priestly status remains. Only perfect animals are to be sacrificed to G-d. Perfect people, perfectly pure, offering perfect animals.

The second section delineates times and seasons for Israelite festivals. After an introduction to the Sabbath as a perpetual day of complete rest (‘shabbat shabbaton’), Moses tells the people about the five major Jewish holidays in a series of five speeches. We are told that Passover is to be celebrated in the first month of the year, followed by an unusual ceremony: the wave offering of the first sheaf of the harvest, to be followed by counting off seven complete weeks (‘shabbatot tmimot’). Note: the Hebrew here for ‘complete’ also means ‘perfect’….perfect priests, perfect sacrifices, perfect weeks!

After the seven weeks, new grain is brought to the temple on the fiftieth day, in celebration of the next holiday, Shavuot (‘weeks’). The period of time between Passover and Shavuot, known as the counting of the Omer, is the longest defined period of time in the Jewish ritual calendar: observing it requires doing a specific blessing and counting formula every day for forty-nine days.

Before moving to the next three holidays, the Torah seems to pause and a verse that does not deal with the holiday calendar is inserted: Lev. 23:22: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Lord am your G-d.” The narrative then continues with a description of the next three holy days, very important ones, which all occur in the seventh month: Rosh Hashanah, on the first day of the month, Yom Kippur, ten days later and Sukkot, on the fifteenth. Why does the Torah insert this reminder about leaving gleanings for the poor here, in the midst of describing the order of the festival calendar, when it was stated more fully just last week in Leviticus 19:10?

Consider all the emphasis on perfection in this week’s portion. We know that no human is perfect (although there are those who claim to be). Moses himself had a speech impediment. Interestingly, the Talmud (Megillah 29a) tells us that Rav Ashi deduced from Leviticus 21:20 that arrogance constitutes a blemish; such an imperfection would prevent a Cohen from performing the offerings. Chagigah 5a teaches: “Over these does G-d weep daily: over the one who is able to study the Torah and does not; over the one who is unable to devote the time to Torah and study it; and over the public leader who is arrogant in his leadership”. The Talmud is looking at ‘perfection’ in leadership very differently. Rather than judging fitness for leadership on the basis of physical conditions over which the person has no control, the Talmud values the humility necessary to realize that we are imperfect, but trying to improve.

This explains the verse that demands we do not reap all the way to the corners of our fields: an intentionally incomplete harvest is a kind of required imperfection. It reminds us that society is not perfect; there will always be needy people. We are required to care for others rather than arrogantly only caring for ourselves.

Shavuot later became associated with receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. The period of counting the Omer is an opportunity to pay attention to self-improvement; as potential recipients of Divine wisdom, we humbly aspire toward perfecting ourselves. Rather than pretending to be perfect, wisdom comes with knowing we are not and yet trying to improve each day, making every day count.

Shabbat shalom!

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