Parshat Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:23; Ezekiel 44:15-31. 

What is the most important quality for a religious leader — a sharp mind or a sensitive heart, a commitment to study or a commitment to lovingkindness?

This week’s parshah opens with the laws applying to the Kohanim, the religious, ritual leaders of Israel. The reading provides their quintessential leadership role: to direct the Jewish people in areas of the sacred and mundane, the ritually pure and impure, the teachings and the statutes, the details of the festivals and the prohibitions of the Sabbath. 

One of the greatest transgressions a Jew can commit is bitul zman, wasting or nullifying time. Conversely, one of the greatest accolades the Talmud can bestow upon anyone is that “their mouth never ceased from studying” (lo pasik pumey mi’girsa). 

There are many biblical and talmudic statements which strengthen the need for humane sensitivity as a critical subtext for any leader’s decision. For example, the Biblical definition of God’s ways and God’s glory, insofar as these concepts may be at all understandable to mortals, is “A God of love, a compassionate, powerful One who gives grace freely, long-suffering, filled with lovingkindness and truth” (Exodus 34:6).

This passage is the very source for the oral law and the way it is to be applied. The Talmud declares, “He who has Torah learning without good deeds is as if he is bereft of God.” 

Our response literature, from Rabbi Moshe Isserles to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, is replete with amazing examples proving the importance of humane compassion as an overriding factor in halachic decision making.

Haim Grade, in his moving novel Rabbis and Wives, tells of a great Torah scholar known as the porush (the separated one) of Vilna, who refused to answer halachic questions. This self-imposed “exile” came about because when he was a student in Slobodka, his mother had made a long trip to see him, but he was so involved in extra Yom Kippur Katan prayers and Talmudic studies that he had no time to see her. He was haunted by her last words, “I have a son, a tzadik [righteous man]” because he feared that these words were said not with pride, but rather with sarcastic irony.

I believe that the Kohanim, descendants of Aaron, the High Priest, who “loved all creatures and brought them closer to Torah,” must bless the congregation “with love” in order to stress the importance of love in meting out religio-legal judgments. 

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

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