Say It, Don’t Spray It

And the Lord said to Moses: Say to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Let none [of you] defile himself for a dead person among his people. [Leviticus 21:1]

There is a difference between “say” and “speak.” The sages define the word “speak” in Hebrew Daber, as dealing with the measure of justice. The creation of the world in Genesis uses only Daber because justice rather than mercy was meant to rule Adam and the animal kingdom.

“Say,” or Emor, is the opposite. It is an expression of softness, even affection. If you were speaking to your child in a loving tone, you would say, “Come to the kitchen, Tateleh and have a piece of kuchen.” Then, the usage would be Emor.

The Mizrahi, full name Rabbi Eliahu Ben Avraham Mizrahi, cites another difference. He was born in Istanbul in the 15th Century and appointed chief rabbi of Turkey during the golden days of the Ottoman Empire when Islam controlled most of Europe. Eliahu was as comfortable in astronomy and mathematics as he was in Talmud. His seat in the royal court was situated between the mufti and the patriarch of the Christians. In his own community, the rabbi fought against efforts to ostracize the Karaites, who rejected the oral law but were still committed to the written Torah.

In his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, Emor, Mizrahi enumerates another difference between say and speak. Daber, he writes, relates to a general rule, for example, an order to avoid eating meat. Emor focuses on the specific: “Bring me only liver.”

except for his relative who is close to him, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother, and for his virgin sister who is close to him, who was not [yet] with a man for her, he shall defile himself. [Leviticus 21:2-3]

Here, the Torah deals with the issue of death and is specific. Until now, the kohanim were admonished to keep holy, separate from impurity, particularly the dead. Now, the man’s wife or child has died. What is he to do? Walk away and let strangers take care of the burial?

G-d’s message to Moses is that this is not an option. The Zohar on this week’s Torah portion speaks of the severity of abandoning a human corpse. Upon death, the Zohar says, the soul has left the body without spirit. It is lifeless but not dispensable. Instead, it must be buried immediately. The consequences are severe and even stop G-d from His duties. Meanwhile, the soul of the deceased is suffering.

For the Holy One, blessed be He, may have decreed upon him another incarnation at once, on the very day he died, to help him. But as long as the body is not buried, the soul does not come before G-d, nor can it be in another body in another incarnation, for a soul is not given another body until the first one is buried. [Zohar. Emor 7]

For the kohan, apathy is not an option. He must drop everything and bury his loved one even at the cost of defilement. He might be scheduled to conduct services at the Temple in a few days and, if impure, would be unable to enter the compound. The burial of the dead, however, comes first.

There is another scenario that requires the kohan to become defiled. This time, he is traveling and sees a body along the road. There is nobody to attend to the deceased. Again, he must stop and bury the corpse, thereby losing his priestly privileges until he is restored to purity, a process that takes at least a week.

That explains the repetition of the word “say’ at the beginning of the Torah portion. G-d is speaking gently to Moses and telling him to do the same to the kohanim: Stay pure, cut your hair, dress for success and marry an honest woman. But do not abandon your family or those literally thrown by the wayside.

It is illustrative yet typical of the Torah to begin with the most humane of considerations before diving into the minutiae of law. The restrictions of the Jewish people, and particularly the kohanim, are not easy. Like the kohan, the rest of the Jewish people need to stay pure, both in action and speech. Still, the laws cannot be used as a pretext to deny human kindness, particularly that of the dead.

In the same vein, the Torah never forgets the weak and poor. The Talmud discusses the rights of a father over his underage children. The children are sent to work in the fields to make ends meet for their poor family. The father, if he supports his children, is allowed to take their earnings.

But if the minor children are also paid in food, the law is different. The father does not have the right to take away food from the mouths of his children. It doesn’t matter whether they ate breakfast an hour earlier. The issue is not about money. It is about a father who leaves his children wanting. The little ones do not understand why they can’t eat the fruit given by the boss man. That denial enters the realm of cruelty and violates the basic requirement of human kindness.

The Merciful One did not grant him [father] jurisdiction over the suffering of his minor son or daughter. [Bava Metzia. 92b]

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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