Five Rashis, Emor: Shaping Our Experience of Hashem

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen b. Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

The Blemish of Blemishes

Late in the first chapter of Parashat Emor, the Torah lists mumim, commonly translated as defects or blemishes, preventing a kohen from offering sacrifices. Some mistakenly assume they are excluded from the priesthood generally—in fact, such a kohen partakes of sacrifices with his brethren, and is included in the obligation to refrain from contact with corpses.

Some mumim are significant and obvious handicaps, such as missing a limb. Excluding such people—especially in our times of heightened sensitivity to meeting the special needs of others and making sure we don’t deny ourselves the benefits of their talents and contributions to humanity—can strike us as benighted. Why deny people with special needs the opportunity to serve in the Beit HaMikdash?

Rashi on 21;20 defines some of the types of mumim in ways that suggest that’s an incomplete approach. A גבן, giben, for Rashi, is someone whose eyebrows cover his eyes (there are other interpretations, but this is a Five Rashis essay); a דק, dak, has a kind of filmy membrane in his eyes, and a תבלל, tevalul, has a piece of the sclera, the white of the eye, that extends into the iris and even into the pupil, breaking the usual boundaries separating the parts of the eye.

I offer these (there are other examples, such as left-handedness) to suggest that mumim aren’t so much defects as noticeable differences, which may or may not affect the kohen’s ability to deal with life. Some of them are innocuous for the kohen, but would be noticed by anyone meeting that kohen.

To me, the list suggests that we are concerned that people not be distracted by the kohen; in the Beit HaMikdash, the focus needs to be Hashem, and the kohen is supposed to be an unnoticed intermediary, a representative of Hashem with almost no personality of his own (during his moments of service).

That’s why the ba’al mum, the “blemished” kohen performs all the other functions of the priesthood, such as eating sanctified sacrifices. But if his physical person is so noticeable that it would take attention away from Hashem, that defeats the purpose of the service, and the Torah is telling us not to let that happen.

Choosing Our Service

Rashi to 22;18 records the distinction between נדר and נדבה, animals offered with a vow or a freewill offering—the former is where the person obligates him/herself to offer a sacrifice, the latter is where a particular animal is designated to be offered (a simple halachic distinction is if the animal is lost, develops a blemish, or dies—in the first case, the obligation is personal, so the animal has to be replaced, not in the second).

In the next verses, the Torah rules out bringing animals that have a mum (a similar but not identical list to the one for humans), and says that such animals can be given as a נדבה, but not on the altar. Rashi explains that here the word means a donation for בדק הבית, for funding the upkeep of the Beit HaMikdash (the financial realities of running the Beit HaMikdash are a huge issue, which I raised in Murderer in the Mikdash, but which will become more pressing, and won’t be simple, once we actually have a restored Beit HaMikdash, bb”y).

The difference between נדר and נדבה, and the different meanings of נדבה, highlight one more issue I think is under-discussed—how does someone decide what kind of donation to make to the Beit HaMikdash to express his/her love of Hashem? A sacrifice can be an עולה, all burned to Hashem, or a שלמים, where some goes on the altar, some to the kohanim, some to us, and we can take it on as a personal responsibility or designate a particular animal for that purpose. Or we can make the whole contribution financial, not sacrificial.

How to decide? That is a question not only in the Beit HaMikdash, but today—granted we have resources to dedicate to Hashem in some way. To simplify, let’s assume we know we want it to go to our local shul. There are still varying needs—construction, programming, upkeep, staff salaries. How do we decide? Leaving it up to individual preferences reminds me of R. Amital, zt”l’s line that it’s easier to get a new building or wing donated than heat in the dorms, because you can’t put someone’s name on heat in the dorms.

A lasting question, starting with the difference between נדר and two kinds of נדבה.

Kiddush Hashem—For Jews Only, to the Death

22;32 mentions the prohibition against sacrilege and the obligation to sanctify Hashem’s Name. While that comes up in many contexts, the Torah mentions it at the conclusion of a discussion of right and wrong ways to offer sacrifices. Be that as it may, Rashi on the words ולא תחללו, do not profane, makes two points that seem to me not well-known.

First, he reminds us that the verse requires us to sanctify Hashem’s Name בתוך בני ישראל, amongst the Jewish people. When other nations point at our behavior as wrong, we call that a chillul Hashem; conversely, when a Jew does something admirable and many non-Jews see it, we often speak of that as a kiddush Hashem. There’s truth to that, but Rashi makes sure we understand that this technical halachic obligation involves a Jew acting in front of other Jews.

Our sanctifying or profaning Hashem’s Name is, first, a matter of how our actions will be seen by fellow Jews.

Sometimes, this means that a person has to let him/herself be killed rather than act against the Torah. Rashi wants us to remember that where it’s required, we in fact have to be prepared to die—there is no promise or implication that Hashem will always save those faithful to Him. The prime example is Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah who, threatened with being thrown in a fiery furnace, still refused to follow Nevuchadnezzar’s commands.

Hashem did save them, but in Daniel 3;18, they say clearly that they expect to die for refusing to follow Nevuchadnezzar’s command. Because that’s what kiddush Hashem is (where that’s what’s required — it’s not that we should long to be put to death in Hashem’s Name, it’s that we should recognize that we might have to let ourselves be put to death in Hashem’s Name. Where that’s what we have to do, we have to do it, ready to die because Hashem said so).

The Meaning of Shmini Atseret

23;36 speaks of the eighth day of Sukkot as an atseret, a holdover day. Outside of Israel, the day is caught up, to a great extent, with the leftover Sukkot elements (how much do you use the Sukkah, for example) or the anticipation of Simchat Torah. In Israel, the mixing with Simchat Torah is even more significant, since it’s all one big day.

Rashi puts a different spin on it (it bears comparison with his definition of atseret in Bamidbar 29;35). He likens it to a king who invited his son for a feast of a few days, found parting too hard at the end, and asked the son to stay one more day.

Remember that by Torah law, Sukkot is the last holiday until Pesach—six months, minus a week. Jews leaving the Beit haMikdash after Sukkot would have no holiday reason to return all through the winter and the planting season. Shmini Atseret is a holdover day for Sukkot itself, but for the windup of the holiday season as a whole. It’s a day to stay with Hashem, one more day.

Manipulating the Calendar for the Harvest

23;39 refers to Sukkot as a holiday that happens באספכם את תבואת הארץ, when you have gathered the crops of the land. Rashi comments that this tells us to ensure that the seventh month in fact falls at the time of the harvest, another reason to intercalate the calendar (to add an extra month when necessary). Without that, as happens in the Muslim calendar, the holiday will happen in the summer or winter.

It’s an obvious point, made interesting only by the fact that the Torah has already told us that we have to make sure that Pesach happens in the spring. More than that, it’s easier to make Pesach happen in the spring, since the month we would add is a second Adar—throughout Adar, the Sanhedrin could check the roads, etc., to see whether the rains had stopped, whether the roads were sufficiently passable for those coming to Yerushalayim for the holiday.

To adjust the calendar so that the harvest works out right, when the only tool is adding an Adar, is more delicate. It implies that even if it’s already dry enough to allow people to come, if the harvest is going to be delayed for some reason, the Sanhedrin might still add an Adar.

Short-range planning and long-range planning are different endeavors, each with its own challenges. This Rashi shows that we were required to engage in both with regard to the calendar, with all the challenges that long-range calculations bring. Because not only does Pesach have to happen in spring, Sukkot has to happen at harvest time.

Five different ways Parshat Emor tells us to shape how we encounter Hashem—making sure the Beit HaMikdash is about Hashem, not the kohen, deciding which kinds of offerings to make, knowing the audience and extent of our commitment to kiddush Hashem, seeing Shmini Atseret as our last chance to spend time with Hashem, and keeping Sukkot, not just Pesach, in the season it belongs.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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