Matters of Life and Death | Parashat Emor

There is a time to be tactful. God, being God, does not always have to be tactful. But sometimes the needs of the time call for a justified tactlessness. When the matter is urgent, one cannot avoid unpleasant topics.

Our Sidra begins (Leviticus 21:1-4) with God telling Moses to tell the priests not to touch a corpse, unless it is of someone in a close family relationship to them – including ‘your brother’. To be fair, God does not talk to Aharon directly at this point; this is just after two of his sons, Nadav and Avihu have been burned up whilst in the performance, it seems, of some unspecified and unscheduled ritual actions (Leviticus 10:2). Everyone is in shock – Aharon, his surviving sons Eleazar and Itamar, Moses who has lost two nephews, and anyone in the Camp who heard of what had occurred and who now has evidence, if this were needed, that when things go wrong they can go very wrong indeed. Exact details are not given, cannot be given, for there are no surviving eye-witnesses; the accident seems to have happened by itself, the fire springs up out of control, leaving God just as shocked. God’s belated command not to serve in the Sanctuary when under the influence of alcohol can be seen as a hasty reaction, and we can of course (from a safe distance) contemplate the risks of working with naked flames when we and our clothes have recently been doused in pure olive oil. ‘Health and Safety’ legislation would never tolerate a Temple in modern times!

But it goes further than this. Only one chapter earlier – thanks to the way the sidrot are divided, this is towards the end of ‘Kedoshim’ instead of in ‘Emor’ – in Leviticus 20:1-5, God commands Moses to tell B’nei Yisrael and all non-Israelite residents, not just the Cohanim, not to give their children to Moloch. The term used is literally that:; not ‘sacrificing’ but ‘giving’: – “asher yiteyn miZar’o laMolech” (v.2), “ki miZar’o natan laMolech” (v.3), “beTito miZar’o aMolech” (v. 4), the triple mention emphasising the horror of what in verse 5 is described as ‘whoring after Moloch’.

But what does this mean? How did one ‘give’ of one’s children to this mysterious divinity, whose name of course is related to Melech, ‘The King’? Why, one burned them up, alive! Just as God has burned up two of Aharon’s sons, indeed, the elder two – the firstborn called ‘Nadav’, ‘the Gift’, and his brother. And why is this commandment necessary, right now? Have the Israelites been in the habit of performing this ghastly ritual? There is a basic principle which says that it is not necessary to prohibit things that people don’t do anyway.

It is perhaps hard for us to understand what might make a man voluntarily sacrifice his first son to a petulant and threatening Deity. It would be nice to be able to say that it is inconceivable that a conscious adult human being would ever throw a helpless child alive into a fire… alas, we have learned enough about atrocities in our history, and we know of enough people tied up and burned alive in the market place as the whole population watched with satisfaction. We know that entire cities can be razed to the ground with their inhabitants deliberately trapped inside. We know that there is a deep religious urge in Mankind that compels him to kill and burn living creatures in the name of whatever god is being served at the time. It seems that the best we can do is to try to channel this urge and divert it away from sacrificing human beings and instead to concentrate on other mammals. Sometimes this attempt works – sometimes it doesn’t. Moloch takes many forms but the urge to sacrifice remains.

So a man would come – we never learn what the feelings of the new mother would be at this stage – probably trembling in awe and take up his new-born son, hold him up before a ‘holy altar’ and a ‘holy fire’, say whatever seemed appropriate to a god in the circumstances – the prophets who condemn the practice never give us details but we can use our imaginations – and in gratitude for the gift of life, solemnly present Moloch with the gift back, in the hope and expectation of future generosity.

That is not what Aharon did. He had just spent time preparing his sons at God’s command to serve God in the sanctuary for the rest of their lives, not expecting these to be so short. But at the moment when he is in shock and grief and silence, does not seem the right time to give him further commands prohibiting the burned sacrifice of living children. Even if God describes Himself twice in verses 7 and 8 as the One who sanctifies us – implying that we do not need any other interpreters of the divine will, no astrologers, cloud-readers or other self-appointed Tellers of the Truth. Such as those who speak to the Dead… The Dead are now gone, and should no longer be addressed directly.

The next-but-one command (Lev. 20:9) concerns the children who curse their parents – rather than the parents who have laid such a curse upon their children. Matters of Life and Death.


About the author: Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild, Landesrabbiner of Schleswig-Holstein, serves Chadash Liberal Jewish Community in Vienna, Austria.


The above previously appeared as #271 in our Torah from Around the World series.

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