SALT - Yom Ha-Zikaron, Wednesday, 3 Iyar 5779 - May 8, 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            The opening verses of Parashat Emor present the special restrictions that apply to the kohanim – specifically, the prohibition against coming in direct contact with a human corpse, and the restrictions on whom a kohen may marry.  God introduces these laws by commanding Moshe, “Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aharon, and say to them…” (21:1).  Rashi, based on the Gemara (Yevamot 114a), explains the seeming redundancy in this verse (“Speak…and say to them”) as intended to instruct the adult kohanim to train the young kohanim to comply with these commands – specifically, to avoid tum’a (the impurity resulting from contact with a corpse).  God was commanding Moshe to tell the kohanim not only to observe these laws, but also to work towards ensuring that these laws would also be observed by the youngsters among the priestly tribe.
            Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg, in Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala, offers a much different, especially creative, reading of the word “emor” in this verse.  He notes that the verb a.m.r., which is commonly used in reference to speech, can also denote “elevation.”  Thus, for example, David laments in Tehillim (94:1), “Yit’ameru kol po’alei aven” – the evildoers pride themselves over the power and wealth they attained through criminal means.  Moshe tells Benei Yisrael before his death, when they reaffirmed their covenant with God, “Et Hashem he’emarta… V-Hashem he’emirekha” – that they have formally pronounced the Almighty as their Lord, and He has formally pronounced them as His cherished nation (Devarim 26:17-18).  And the prophet Yeshayahu (17:6) refers to the top of a tree as “amir.”  Accordingly, Rav Mecklenberg suggests interpreting God’s instruction to Moshe, “Emor el ha-kohanim” to mean that he was to “elevate” the kohanim, to raise them to a higher standard of sanctity, by conveying to them the special laws that apply to members of the priestly tribe.  Thus, there is no redundancy in this verse, as the word “emor” instructs Moshe not to speak to the kohanim, but to “elevate” them, and the second verb – “ve-amarta” – is the means of elevating the kohanim, namely, conveying to them the special laws they are to observe.
            Rav Mecklenberg proceeds to suggest explaining the Gemara’s inference from this verse in light of his novel reading of the word “emor.”  The phrase, “Emor el ha-kohanim benei Aharon” he writes, could be understood to mean, “Elevate the young children of Aharon to the lofty level of kohanim,” by having them avoid tum’a just as the adult kohanim must.  Moshe was charged to “elevate” the kohanim by having even the children of the kohanim live at a special standard of sanctity.
            One of the challenges of kedusha is to “elevate” even the “children,” those who might not seem quite ready or able to live lives of sanctity.  The Torah’s command of “Kedoshim tiheyu” (Vayikra 19:2), which was stated to the entire nation – even if it applies at a higher standard to the kohanim – expresses the belief that even “children” are capable of sanctity.  It instructs that even if we feel unprepared for, or unworthy of, this lofty mandate, we have the ability to elevate ourselves, to one extent or another.  Just as the kohanim’s elevated stature required the “elevating” of even the children, we must all commit ourselves to reaching higher even if we feel like “children,” even if we feel small and limited, firmly believing that we are capable of becoming better than what we are in the present.