The very word “emor” for which this parsha is named, and which appears twice in the parsha, is unusual.
The opening verse says ( Leviticus 21:1);
ויאמר ה אל משה אמר אל הכהנים בני אהרן ואמרת אליהם לנפש לא יטמע בעמיו
And Ado-nai said to Moses, speak to the priests the sons of Aaron and tell them, none should become impure of the dead among his people
Later on verse 22:3 reads:
אמר אליהם לדורותיכם כל איש אשר יקרב מכל זרעכם אל הקדשים אשר יקדישו בני ישראל ל-ה וטומאתו עליו ונכרתה הנפש ההוא מלפני שמי הTell them [the kohanim] for all your generations, every man [kohen] from all your progeny who, while impurity is upon him, sacrifices of the holy things that have been sanctified by the Children of Israel unto Ado-nai, that soul shall be cut off from my presence, I am Ado-nai.
In both these verses G-d is asking Moses to communicate a message to kohanim. And in both instances the phrasing is very different from the way G-d normally makes such requests. Indeed, the usual phrasing is as follows: וידבר ה אל משה לאמר דבר אל etc. And Ado-nai spoke to Moses to say thus; speak to … etc. G-d uses very precise language and expects Moses to quote Him verbatim. Furthermore the language G-d uses is second person singular or second person plural, which is how Moses then faithfully addresses the intended audience.
Our parsha is no exception. Indeed it is replete with examples of G-d asking Moses to address the Israelites, and the verbal pattern is the typical one of וידבר ה אל etc.
However the two ‘emor’ verses are exceptional. Here G-d is not asking Moses to quote Him verbatim. He is merely asking Moses to communicate certain information to the priests, using third person language; e.g. ולאחותו הבתולה הקרובה אליו (21:3) – to his virgin sister who is near to him. The normal form would be “to your virgin sister who is close to you”. Likewise with the second appearance of the word ‘emor’; e.g. (22:4)
איש איש מזרע אהרן והוא צרוע או זב בקדשים לא יאכל עד אשר יטהר Any man from the seed of Aaron who is stricken with tzaraat, or has a running issue, he shall not eat of the holy things until he is purified. The message is addressed to the abstract “he” not to the concrete “you”.
Both uses of the word ‘emor’ and the unusual, third person way of transmitting the laws in question, address issues of ritual impurity (טומעה) in cases where the kohen himself is the one who is ritually impure.
Clearly G-d is distancing Himself from the object of such impurity to the degree that the manner of addressing the issue is relatively oblique even though the ramifications are extreme. And in so doing, G-d is telling Moses to pass on the information using third person reference rather than pointing to his audience of kohanim, lest any of them assume the words are intended ad hominem.
But the question is why? What is it about the ‘tumah’ of a kohen that is so fraught one dares not mention it except in a roundabout way? After all, in this very same parsha, when G-d disqualifies physically imperfect kohanim from performing the temple rituals He reverts to His usual speech pattern and second person singular;
וידבר ה אל משה לאמר דבר אל אהרן לאמר איש מזרעך לדרתם אשר יהיה בו מןם לא יקרב להקריב לחם אלהיו
And Ado-nai spoke to Moses to say thus; Speak to Aaron to say thus; Any man of your seed for their generations who has any blemish shall not approach to sacrifice the bread of his G-d (21:16).
Why is it that it is okay, indeed mandatory, to quote G-d verbatim, and to speak directly concerning priestly disqualification on the basis of physical imperfection – a disqualification that has lifetime implications – while at the same it is not acceptable when the topic is ritual impurity which is typically a temporary disqualifier?
In our times, ritual impurity, ‘tumah’, is an abstraction. Yes, we know we are ritually impure after attending a funeral, and we do a symbolic ritual hand washing after leaving the funeral home or cemetery. But in fact we don’t really feel impure or different in any way for our supposed impurity.
We can only assume that a state of ‘tumah’ was a vastly more profound and powerful one back in the times of Moses, the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash. Back then it was a visceral state that one actually felt. Indeed the נגע צרעת, the skin disease that is associated with gossip (although often translated as leprosy) was in fact the physical manifestation of a state of spiritual impurity. We, today, are unfamiliar with this disease and the power it had on both the inflicted individual and the entire community.
From Parshat Emor we can infer that ‘tumah’ was something far different from today’s abstraction which requires merely a ritual hand washing or immersion in a mikveh. In ancient Israel, the idea of tumah was terrifying. And the individual who was tumah was perceived as being responsible for having brought himself into such a pariah state. And when that individual was a kohen, a priest, and he allowed himself to be ritually defiled this was a direct affront to G-d Himself.
Hence we can now understand why when G-d must transmit the laws regarding priestly tumah, the manner in which He does so indicates the enormous distance that such a state creates between the defiled kohen and the A-mighty who the kohen is commanded to serve. Likewise, when Moses passes on this information to the kohanim he does so in a more elliptical manner so that none may take offense, and none should look at his fellow priest and assume that perhaps Moses was referring to him specifically. Such was the dread and the social blemish that were associated with such a status.
By contrast, a priest stricken with a physical blemish or disfigurement, while ineligible for priestly service in the Temple, is nevertheless not in a state of ritual impurity. Such a priest’s shortcoming are not his fault, and it in no way diminish from his social status as a kohen. Indeed (21:22);
לחם אלהיו מקדשי הקדשים ומין הקדשים יאכל
He shall eat the bread of his G-d both of the most holy and of the holy