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Daniel D. Stuhlman

Parashat Emor — Priestly Holiness

Parashat Emor  May 6, 2023

Last week I mentioned the Kedoshim tihiyu קדושים תהיו (you shall be holy) was a central concept for all of Jewish ritual and observance.  This week’s Torah potion continues with the description of regulations of the priests (kohanim) and the sanctuary.  I decided to try ChatGPT and asked it to write a davar torah in my style.  It produced a quote that it attributed to me, “The holiness of the Kohanim was not for their own personal gain, but for the benefit of the entire Jewish community.”  Even though it is something that I may have written, I could find no place where I actually wrote those words.   Since the kohanim were connected to the ritual life of the nation they had special rules to put them on a higher standard.  For example, they could not come in contact with a dead body, shave the corners of their beards, or make a cutting for pleasure into their flesh.

Frequently we divide religious Jewish life into two aspects of mitzvot. Both are part of being holy.  On one side is holiness of the priesthood, the sanctuary, and specialness of time and the other is the relationships between people.  The priests were more concerned with the former while the prophets focuses on how people should act.  We call these aspects in Hebrew mitzvot bein adam leMakom  and bein adam lechavero.  Ethical behaviors are how we act with ourselves, our friends and our community. If we don’t act properly, we could suffer economic or personal sanctions.  The laws of business and personal relationships are how we have a community and a civilized society that is safe, secure and ensures our future.

If we transgress a ritual law, we only answer to ourselves and God. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs says one is concerned with holiness and the other virtue.  I disagree. Since every person was created in the image of God, all our actions are part of the Divine holiness. Acting in an ethical and legal manner is part of the command to be holy.  Rabbi Sachs said that acting “ethically” is not the same as acting with “holiness.”

Kohanim could not have blemishes and offer sacrifices.  Blemishes such as blindness or lameness are not considered problems in our society.

The business is that we need a certain reverence to power to perform our business tasks with ethics.  Kedusha (holiness) strengthens the values of loyalty, respect, social conventions, law, and humility.  National identity and communal identity require respect and loyalty. Justice and compassion are important for the running of a business and the prosperity of a community. They need an aspect of holiness to work.

Discussion questions

  1. What is the importance of the role of priests and prophets in shaping of the holiness of our people?
  2. How does created beauty such as art, music, and literature fit into a holy society? In other words, how do the creative arts lead us to be closer to God?
  3. How is the observance of Shabbat and holidays enhanced with creative arts or natural beauty?
About the Author
Lives in Chicago, Illinois USA. Academic and synagogue librarian for more than 40 years. Graduate of Columbia University in the City of New York, Jewish Theological Seminary, and Jewish University of America. MHL and DHL in Tanah. Gabbai Sheni of Kehilath Jacob Beth Shmuel in Chicago for more than 40 years.
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