Parshat Emor: Leviticus 21:1-24:23; Ezekiel 44:15-31.
The portion of Emor opens with a strange commandment to the kohanim: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the priests … and tell them: “Do not defile yourself by contact with the dead of the nation.’” (Leviticus 21:1).
The Bible goes on to delineate the only dead with whom the kohen may have contact: his wife, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother and his unmarried sister.
Judaism is not chiefly concerned with death and the hereafter; rather it is principally engaged with life in the here-and-now. Our major religious question is not how to ease the transition from this world to the next, but how to improve and repair our own society. What does seem strange, however, is that our same portion goes on to command: “You shall not desecrate the name of my holiness; I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel.”
Our sages derive from this verse the necessity of sacrificing one’s life — sanctifying the name of God — for the sake of the commandments of the Bible. Jews must give up their lives rather than transgress any of the three major prohibitions of murder, sexual immorality or adultery; and, in times of persecution, Jews must die rather than publicly transgress even the simplest or most “minor” of Jewish laws.
The sages insist, however, that when Jews are not being persecuted, it is forbidden for Jews to forfeit their lives in order not to desecrate Shabbat; it’s better they desecrate one Shabbat and remain alive to keep many Shabbatot. Then why command martyrdom at all? And the truth is that our history is filled with the many sacred martyrs who gave up their lives in sanctification of the Divine.
The answer lies in the very juxtaposition of the law of priestly defilement emphasizing the importance of life and the law of martyrdom enjoining death, within the very same biblical portion. Yes, preservation of life is crucial, and this world is the focus of the Jewish concern — but not life merely for the sake of breathing. Living, and not merely existing, means devoting one’s life to ideals and values that are more important than any individual life. One enables one’s life to participate in eternity by dedicating it to the eternal values that will eventually repair the world and establish a more perfect society.
The memorials of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars quickly followed by Independence Day and Jerusalem Day must remind us that Israel is not merely a destination but is truly destiny. Israel is not only the means of our survival, but it is also our mission for world salvation, from whence the word of God, a God of life, love and peace — will spread to all of humanity.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.