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06/25/2020 04:19:16 PM


Anne Lowe

Boker Tov, friends! I am honored and delighted to give the D’var Torah this morning, as we gather in this new normal Zoom environment for Shabbat. Our parasha is Emor today, and I did a little personal computer research to see what I had written previously, about five years ago, on this parasha. I am going to repeat some of it, but go in a different direction as well.


Our Etz Chayim tells us that this parasha has the alternative name of Torat Kohanim, or the priests’ manual. Indeed, it sets the priests apart from the everyday members of the tribe. There are certain rules and obligations that the Kohanim must abide by, that are quite severe, and can even have extreme punishments if not followed. So this priests’ manual spells them out.


For instance, even if a priest’s wife should die, he cannot attend her burial. On the other hand, he may attend the burial of close family members. Why is there this discrepancy? The explanation that is given is that the priestly duties are due to family, or birth, or ultimately because they are descendants of Aaron. Their distinctiveness is based on their forebears.


This reminds me of others throughout history who had their roles thrust on them, not by merit, but by lineage. For example, the current Queen of England, Elizabeth II, has held her office these many decades because she was descended from royalty. Actually, both her father, who was a stutterer (we all remember the excellent movie, The King’s Speech), and his brother, Edward, who actually gave up the throne for the woman he loved, were two who possibly never wanted the title or honor of being king. Their roles were thrust upon them by their lineage.


It makes one wonder about and actually pity those who have their positions determined by birth, such as the Kohanim, royalty, and even slaves. What if you were born into the family of Kohanim, but you had no desire to be a priest? How sad. And the rules were indeed stringent. They were set up as an example of the highest level of devotion to the Lord. The Etz Chayim goes on to say, “Every society needs a core of people who live by a more demanding code, to set an example for others of what is possible.”


When considering this in today’s society, who or what group comes to mind? Surely, the Catholic priests, with their rules of celibacy, and prohibitions to marriage and having their own children, are examples of a very demanding code. And yet, sadly, we know that this code is in some cases too severe, and is broken by many of those who vow to uphold it.


Then there are our own country’s political figures who are supposed to be above board in nearly every endeavor. And sadly, these too, often have come tumbling down when caught in even a small misdemeanor. Society cannot tolerate indiscretions from those who are held as prime examples of how one should act.


There is another group of men in the United States who take stringent vows and devote a year of their lives to service. These are the US Army guards of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These men spend up to 8 hours a day preparing their uniforms for their guard tours. They walk their beat which is from ½ hour to 2 hours (depending on the weather), even through hurricanes. They must maintain a certain waist size, and cannot dishonor their role for their entire lives, even after their one year tour is up. Or else they must give up the special badge they receive. Only 9 have had to give this up, out of about 500 men who have had this role.


These soldiers choose this sacrifice in their jobs, and willingly take on these duties.


But can you imagine how difficult it must have been to lead the life of a Kohane? And how lonely? To be born into this position must have been a burden of responsibility that not every male child desired. I guess I am glad that our modern Kohanim live fairly ordinary lives, although the prohibition about entering cemeteries is still upheld by many.  It is no wonder that a Kohane is the first one called up to do an aliyah. Maybe he himself is not held up to the rigid rules of the Israelites of the desert or of Temple times, but in this way we still honor the memory of those who once were the early Kohanim. 


I have mentioned before, in other Divrei Torah, about the close connection in the Torah where the priests and widows and orphans are often mentioned in the same verse, sometimes in the same sentence. The Israelites were told to care for them equally because they had no personal incomes. I find it intriguing and gratifying that the most esteemed members of the Hebrews, the priests, are somewhat linked to the most vulnerable: widows and orphans. This is evident three times in the parasha Re-eh, in Deuteronomy.


We each have that spark of humanity, of wholesomeness, of holiness within us, whether we are an unknown, nameless soldier who has perished for his country, or an orphan or a widow trying to scrape out a living and depending on the goodness of others, or even a kohane, who is also relying on the benevolence of his fellow Jews for his sustenance.


So my thoughts have led me to the thousands of sparks of humanity that have perished so far in this virus plague we are all fighting each in our own way. To combat our sadness and worry, let us plan to make a phone call tonight to someone we keep thinking about, and forgetting to connect to. Call a neighbor, a relative, a colleague, a friend. This is my gift to you, instead of food for the Kiddush, like I usually bring. I am giving you the gift of friendship, to connect with another spark of humanity before it is extinguished.


Shabbat Shalom.

Fri, September 17 2021 11 Tishrei 5782