Batya Hefter
Batya Hefter

Faith in the Face of Death: Whisper to the Kohanim

Contact with death can cause crises of faith. Believers often despair of the meaning of their own existence and doubt in a benevolent God creeps in. At such times, it is not apparent that the events in the world are for the best.

In Parshat Emor, Rabbi Mordechai Yosef (the Mei HaShiloah) responds to the challenge of keeping faith in God when we face the imperfections of the world. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef does not offer an intellectual solution but rather a theology that develops the inner wisdom of the heart.

The parsha opens with the prohibition of priests who become defiled by the impurity derived from contact with a human corpse (tumat met): “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aharon, and say to them, ‘Let no [priest] defile himself [by contact with] the dead among his people…’” (Vayikra 21:1). The priest, who represents all servants of God, is commanded not to defile himself through contact with a dead body. According to Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, the servant of God (eved Hashem) believes that life and death are guided by Divine Providence for our benefit, and that there is no coincidence in the world. Someone who believes that events are arbitrary does not experience bitterness in the face of injustice and suffering to the same extent. The eved Hashem, however, has expectations of God. Because he believes in Divine Providence, he can become angry and embittered when he witnesses injustice and suffering.

Therefore God warns the priests not to become defiled, meaning spiritually defiled, by allowing their souls to become embittered when exposed to God’s harsh judgment. The impurity from which the priests are commanded to refrain is the contamination of their belief that despite appearances, God rests at the root of all things and that somehow, despite appearances, events are for the good.

However, the “tov” in this world is hidden; what we see in its place is injustice, pain, and evil. For this reason, Rabbi Ya’akov, the son of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef, repeatedly affirms that this world is the world of uncertainty. Though a person might admit, intellectually, that empirical reality does not confirm the claims of faith, the human soul still yearns for certainty. How can the soul derive true security while living in dissonance with empirical reality?

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef responds not by teaching us what to believe, but how to believe. He explains that within the priest’s heart dwells not an intellectual grasp, but an intuitive feeling. There were times when the Divine Presence dwelled within the human soul, Rabbi Ya’akov contends, and it made an impression of holiness upon the soul. That impression somehow remains, and so the soul inwardly “knows” and is secure in its awareness of the hidden reality of God’s goodness. Despite the fact that the ‘soul’s knowing’ does not coincide with external, empirical reality, the soul knows that the day come when all will be revealed as “l’tovah,” for the good.

In the meantime, we live with dissonance, the gap between what the soul knows and what the body and mind experience. Rabbi Mordechai Yosef sees this week’s parsha as relating to this very dissonance. However, just as it would be obtuse to say to someone who has suffered the loss of someone they love that it is really for the best, the Torah cannot openly declare as true that which does not correspond to observed reality. Therefore, the parsha uses the word “emor,” (as in “say [emor] to the priests”) instead of “daber” (tell). “Emor” indicates softer speech, as opposed to “daber,” with its strong consonants, indicates firm speech, thereby hinting that we should whisper this truth. The whisper itself has a double meaning: First, it suggests that we cannot declare this truth openly because it clashes with our experience of reality. However, on a deeper level, a whisper conveys an intimacy that normal speech lacks; whispering bypasses the listener’s despair and doubt, reaches the inner chambers of the soul, and awakens the believing heart.

May we be present for those who have suffered great loss in a whisper.

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מקורות לפרשת אמור

ספר מי השילוח – פרשת אמור ד”ה ‘אמור אל הכהנים’

בית עקב אמור אות י’ ד”ה ‘וזה הוא ענין טומאה…”

About the Author
Batya Hefter is founder and Rosh Beit Midrash of The Women’s Beit Midrash of Efrat and Gush Etzion and the founder of the Women’s Beit Midrash of Cleveland. She holds a Masters in Rabbinic Thought from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After being the Executive Director of the Women’s Beit Midrash for 21 years, she is now the director of the newly emerging Transformative Torah Project whose focus is to transmit the teachings and spiritual path of the hasidic masters for the seeking modern Jew.
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