Drash on Parashat Emor 2023

Drash on Parashat Emor    
Rabbi Allison Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue, Bentleigh, VIC


Last night, I sat in the outskirts of Tel Aviv until 2 am studying the parsha (Torah portion) with my Israeli friend, who I describe as a Chasid in secular clothing. My friend opened his sefer perushim (his book of Torah commentaries) and we began a familiar, albeit very distant, way of engaging in Torah. After all, the bracha we say before we study Torah is:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם    
אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל דִבְרֵי תוֹרָה

Baruch atah Adonai Elohainu melech ha’olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu la’asok b’divrei torah.

Blessed our You, Adonai our G-d, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made us holy by commanding us to engage in the study of Torah.

This week’s parsha, Emor, begins with a deceptively simple verse: 

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר אֶל־הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים בְּנֵ֣י אַהֲרֹ֑ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם לְנֶ֥פֶשׁ לֹֽא־יִטַּמָּ֖א בְּעַמָּֽיו׃

Adonai said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin (Lev. 21:1).

Rabbi Noam Elimelech, an 18th century Polish Chasidic rabbi, taught that there is a difference when we say לְהַגִּיד and לֵאמֹר. The former means to tell or speak in a more direct, harsher manner; whereas the latter means to say or speak in a softer, more gentle manner. The first verse in our parsha uses the soft version of speaking -לֵאמֹר – where G-d directs Moses how to covey to the Cohainim what they can and cannot do to render them טָמֵא (tamei) - impure. Being tamei is not something that one can see. Nor is one usually aware that they are in a state of tuma (impurity). So, one must be made aware through speech.

Introducing another play on words in Hebrew - לְהַזהִיר (l’hazhir , meaning “to warn”) and זֹהַר (zohar, meaning“brilliance” or “radiance” of light), the commentary continued to suggest that the purpose of speaking could either be to warn the Cohanim or to enlighten them with regards to becoming impure. The Zohar is also a well-known, early Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) text containing interpretations of hidden meanings in the Torah, shedding light, if you will, on that which is hidden. Connecting this concept to the idea of gentle speech, this Chasidic commentary suggests that speaking harshly and warning one of the perils ahead will not produce the same enduring effect as gently enlightening someone, or more accurately, providing the opportunity for enlightenment. For one can only shed light on something. It is up to each individual to actually see what is revealed in the light. This revelation or enlightenment, in and of itself, is the brilliant radiance.

Rabbi Conyer pictured below with Israel President Isaac Herzog 

Bringing these ideas back to earth, I have reflected on this past week while I have been in Israel, commemorating Yom Ha’Zikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel’s Independence - - 75 Years Young) before commencing my participation in the WUPJ (World Union of Progressive Judaism) Connections Conference. I have considered the words I have heard and how they were spoken and perceived. This past Motzi Shabbat (Saturday night), I attended the largest demonstration for democracy in Tel Aviv with my Israeli friends some who had not yet attended this demonstration, and others who have attended each week for the past 17 weeks. One friend attended a demonstration in a different city where she felt alienated because of the vitriolic hatred and condemnation of the leadership. As a result, she was not planning on attending another demonstration. After the Tel Aviv demonstration, this friend commented on how different her experience was to the previous demonstration and how she wanted to bring her children the following week. The difference was because of the way the message was spoken. It was not an attack or a warning, but a message shedding light on the issues and the problems the new proposed government reforms would create. The message was clear. We need to reach a compromise for the good of the country and all the people who live in it. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israeli President Herzog gave a strong message of the need for unity, regardless of our differences. His message was strong, but not a condemnation, rather it was a call to all the Israeli people, along with those in the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), to see the light, as this situation could indeed be what Israel needs to create a constitution (which it desperately needs). Shed light on the issues and challenges to enable change and growth to occur.

Pictured: Avishai Conyer, Rabbi Conyer, Phyllis Dorey OAM, Helen Shardey OAM

So, I leave you this message from the Holy Land – take care in how we speak to others. Work to shed light on the issues rather than warn about the people. And actively choose to see the light helping us move from a state of tamei (impurity) to tahor (purity).

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