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Between Kedoshim and Emor

Parashat Kedoshim concludes with a series of laws that focus on attaining holiness and ensuring distinction between Israel and the other nations, and the violation of which are very serious crimes.

It ends with a summary of the purpose of these laws:

“You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. For it is because they did all these things that I abhorred them and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the LORD am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. […] You shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine. “ (Vayikra 20:23-26)

But then there is one additional verse, which seems out of place:

“A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones—their bloodguilt shall be upon them.” (Vayikra 20:27)

Its presence is even more unusual, considering a similar prohibition was mentioned just a few verses earlier:

“And if any person turns to ghosts and familiar spirits and goes astray after them, I will set My face against that person and cut him off from among his people.” (Vayikra 20:6)

Why was it necessary to repeat this verse and place it at the end of the chapter, after the summarizing verses that preceded it?

I think the answer can be found in the laws that follow it, that begin Parashat Emor. That parasha opens with the laws of the kohanim, the priests. Hizzkuni (on Vayikra 21:1) and Midrash Tanchuma (Emor 2), say that the verse is placed here to contrast between consultation with ghosts and the role of the kohanim. We should not consult with ghosts, but rather listen to the kohanim – either through the oracle of the Urim and Tumim, but more generally by relying upon them to teach the proper laws:

“If a case is too baffling for you to decide […] appear before the levitical priests […] and present your problem. When they have announced to you the verdict in the case, you shall carry out the verdict that is announced to you […] act in accordance with the instructions they have given you” (Devarim 17:8-11)

It is tempting to try to decipher the mysteries of the world by looking beyond human reason and logic. And there is no more inscrutable realm than that of the dead. No one can see what happens after this life, and so answers to our questions could perhaps be found by consulting with ghosts (as Shaul did when trying to reach Shmuel, after his death).

But as we discussed in the transition from Metzora to Acharei Mot, the Torah makes every effort to distance us from fascination with the dead and their domain. Our focus needs to be on this world, the people living in it, and how to make it better. In fact, we try to avoid death precisely because it prevents us from serving God: “What is to be gained from my death, from my descent into the Pit? Can dust praise You? Can it declare Your faithfulness?” (Tehillim 30:10)

So when we have a question of how to act in this world, we don’t turn to ghosts or spirits. We ask the kohanim, the ones who best know the laws and can help us make the right choices. Those same kohanim are even further removed from death, as the first verse of Parashat Emor makes clear:

“The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin” (Vayikra 21:1)

God gave us a Torah of life, one that teaches about how to act in this world, and anything that veers from that focus must be rejected.

About the Author
David Curwin is a writer living in Efrat. He has been writing about the origin of Hebrew words and phrases, and their connection to other languages, on his website balashon.com since 2006. He has also published widely on topics relating to Bible and Jewish philosophy.
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