By Rabbi Grisha Abramovich, Belarus
Our Torah portion this week addresses issues that may not necessarily appear to be connected at first glance. Right after the laws concerning priests, we read about the calendar of our sacred occasions: Shabbat and festivals. Then, at the end of the chapter we are told the story of someone who takes God’s name in vain – the sin of blasphemy. How do we connect these different themes and commandments? How do we understand them in the context of the modern world, and analyze what they mean to each and every one of us?
Our challenge to understand this portion is further complicated as many of the details contained here in Emor, including much of the details regarding how the priest should eat sacred offerings, as well as the cycle of festivals, are also presented elsewhere in the Torah. There are also other narratives that explain what Moses should have done with God’s offender – the blasphemer. Thus, the question is “what is unique here?”
Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut in Torah: A Modern Commentary suggested that Parshat Emor presents a list of the laws needed to maintain an ongoing relationship with God. It is true that when we talk about priestly commandments at the beginning of the chapter, they cover some aspects of lifecycle and dietary codes such as a contact with a corpse, forbidden marriages, defects and conditional restrictions of the animal sacrifices. And the Festival calendar continues to explain the annual cycle, adding also the “pilgrim festivals” in Exodus (chapters 23 and 34), the first day of the seventh month that later will become Rosh Hashana – the Jewish New Year, and the Day of Attonement – Yom Hakippurim.
Most of the contents of this Parasha are devoted to the “rules” on how to be a good Jew. Many are quite well known such as “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, and “one standard for strangers and citizen alike”. However, in the same portion we also read the less-familiar story about the punishment for taking God’s name in vain: death by stoning. This person was a resident alien – a stranger in the community. But the law was applied to him equally.
We learn the necessary restrictions for the priest at the beginning of the chapter including that physical “defects” disqualify a priest from particular duties. The priest with the flat-nose, abnormal eye, or scars may not make an offering to God. However, we are told of other duties the disabled priest may continue to perform.
Modern society continues to grapple with the questions of capital punishment as well as employment for individuals with disabilities. There are no universal decisions that are accepted by the entire world. However we learn from the teachings of the Torah about the importance of maintaining a close relationship with God. We also learn that we must apply one standard to everyone – citizen and stranger alike. All people deserve respect and understanding.