> Weekly Torah Portion > Intermediate > M'oray Ha'Aish

The Quality of Innocence

Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

This week's Torah portion begins with instructions given to Moses, which effect his brother Aaron, and all of Aaron's descendants:

And God spoke to Moses, 'Speak to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them, "Do not defile yourselves with the dead among your people."' (Leviticus 21:1)

In this verse, one of the central characteristics of the "priestly family" -- the kohanim -- is introduced: A kohen is not permitted to come in contact with the dead.

To those brought up within the Jewish tradition, this prohibition is familiar, almost obvious. Only when we consider this issue does it seem strange. Why should a kohen not be permitted to come in contact with the dead or death? If such contact is fundamentally wrong, it should be inappropriate for all Jews. Is there something unique about being a kohen which makes contact with the dead incongruous?

Insight into this question may be found in the verse immediately preceding this prohibition:

Any man or woman who is involved in the practices of mediums or oracles shall be put to death ... (Leviticus 20:27)

This verse discusses the punishment for alien practices which were known as ov "mediums" and yid'oni, "oracles," which involved communication with the dead. This is the third instance in which this prohibition is reiterated.

We cannot help but link this last reference with the instructions to the kohanim in such a closely related matter.

The prohibition against the practices of ov and yid'oni are repeated yet again in the Book of Deuteronomy:

When you come to the land that the Lord your God has given you, do not learn to do the revolting practices of those nations ... nor practice Ov or Yid'oni or attempt to communicate with the dead. (Deut. 18:9-11).

From the context, we learn that ov and yid'oni were types of witchcraft involving communication with the dead. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 65b) explains that a human skull was used in the rite of ov.


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King Saul made use of this method in an attempt to communicate with Samuel the Prophet, who had passed away:

Samuel passed away and was eulogized by all of Israel. He was buried in Ramah, in his city. Saul eradicated the ovot and yid'onim from the Land. (I Samuel 28:3)

Next, the text tells us that the Philistines attacked, and Saul was frightened. With his Prophet Samuel no longer at his side, Saul did not know where to turn for counsel. When his prayers went unanswered, he became frustrated:

And Saul said to his servants, 'Find for me a woman who masters the practice of ov and I will go and seek her out' ... He said to her, 'Perform magic for me with ov and bring back he whom I ask of you' ... She said, 'Who should I bring back?' and he said, 'Samuel' ... And Samuel said to Saul, 'Why have you angered me and raised me up ... God will tear the kingdom from your hands and give it to your friend David.' (I Samuel 28:7-17)

In this most unusual passage, King Saul utilized the forbidden services of a medium and communicated with the dead, clearly violating Jewish Law. As punishment, Saul was stripped of his kingship.

The verse in Deuteronomy quoted earlier concludes:

When you come to the land that the Lord your God has given you, do not learn to do the revolting practices of those nations ... nor practice ov or yid'oni or attempt to communicate with the dead. For God abhors all those who do these things, and because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving out these nations before you. Be complete with the Lord your God. (Deut. 18:9-13).

We thus learn that the opposite of these practices is to be complete or one with God.

The Hebrew word for completeness tamim, or its singular form tam, can have connotations of innocence or simpleness as well as completeness. These words often carry with them a negative nuance. Yet here God calls upon man to have simple, innocent, complete trust in Him; indeed, this is what it means to be one with God.

Confusion, fear, neurosis lead man to seek guidance and certainty in the occult, as evidenced by the actions of King Saul. God calls upon man to be complete in his trust. Such trust goes beyond the therapeutic -- total trust in God is spiritually uplifting as well as psychologically comforting.


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The Shem MiSamuel observes that the first instance of lost innocence was the fall of Adam and Eve. In Eden, the first human beings were truly one with God, experiencing His presence, but they exchanged that for a bite of fruit which they hoped would give them the knowledge of God. The result was the introduction of death into the world.

Death is the opposite of innocence. Once man separated himself from God, the power of tumah, "spiritual impurity" gained a foothold.

In fact, the Hebrew word tam "innocent" when read in reverse spells met, "death." When man is no longer innocent, having reversed and perverted his natural innocence, the result is inevitable, inexorable.

The kohen's function is to bring about a return to the original state forfeited by Adam and Eve.

The mandate of the kohen is to reunite man with God through the sacrificial offerings which serve to bring man closer to God and God closer to man. The kohen's function is to bring about oneness or wholeness, a return to the original state forfeited by Adam and Eve.

We now understand why the kohen is to avoid contact with death. The corpse represents the separation of the Divine from our physical existence, the difference between a corpse and a living person being only the breath of God, the soul.

Here is where the Jewish concept of spirituality diverges from the magical rites and incantations of the pagans. The kohen avoids death and seeks completeness with God, while the mediums and oracles, ov and yid'oni, use death to gain understanding and security in this world.


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The person most clearly identified as innocent was Jacob who is described by the Torah as ish tam, "an innocent man who sat in tents," (Genesis 25:27), as opposed to his twin brother Esau, the warrior, who gallivanted in the fields.

Jacob was further described as shalem, another Hebrew word meaning "complete" (Genesis 33:18); in other words, Jacob was one with God. All he needed could be found in the tents of study, while Esau sought adventure and conquest.

It is no coincidence, then, that our Sages taught that Jacob was untouched by death (Ta'anit 5b).

As might be obvious, the word shalem, "complete" or "whole" is closely associated with the word shalom "peace." Another function of Aaron, the prototype of all kohanim, was to purvey peace among Jews:

Hillel said: "Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and bringing them closer to the Torah." (Avot 1:12)

Hillel emphasized that Aaron's function was not only to bring oneness between man and God, but also, and no less importantly, to bring peace between man and his fellow man. Oneness and peace are intertwined; they are two sides of the same coin.

The Maharal teaches that peace is Godly; it emanates from God and is thus an aspect of God Himself (Netivot Olam Page 215). For this reason, one of the names of God is "Shalom."

Avot D'Rabi Natan describes Aaron's method of pursuing peace. If he heard of two people who had a falling out, he would tell each one individually that the other had expressed a strong desire to make amends. (See Avot D'Rabi Natan, Chapter 12).

This method, while well-intentioned and successful, is disturbing. It would seem that the ends are seen as justifying the means. But Aaron's actions become less troubling when we familiarize ourselves with a particular teaching of the Maimonides.

Maimonides, in his "Mishne Torah," explains the Jewish Law regarding a get, or writ of divorce, pointing out that it is valid only if given of free volition by the husband. Nonetheless, if a court of law decides that a man should grant his wife a divorce but he refuses to do so, the court may appoint emissaries to physically "beat him until he says, I agree." (See Mishne Torah, Gerushin 2:20.)

If a man refuses to give his wife a get, the court may order its emissaries to beat him.

This would appear to contradict the law that a get granted under duress is invalid. Maimonides goes on to explain that once the court rules that a man must divorce his wife, any good man would want to comply rather than defy the decision of the court. Therefore it is not the man, but his evil inclination which is standing in the way. Therefore, physical force can be used against the evil inclination to free the good man who wants to do the right thing. In the philosophy of Maimonides, a Jew always wants to do the right thing. Occasionally, "circumstances," "ego" or "honor" may sway him, but do not change his basic nature.

Aaron's understanding of the essence of the Jewish soul is echoed in this teaching of Maimonidesm. He knew that two people at odds with one another always hope for reconciliation, although on the operative level they may allow extraneous considerations to sway them from the course of peace. Aaron pursued peace by bringing people in touch with themselves, their fellow man, and God.

Only someone who is complete, can bring out the completeness in others. Aaron's function was to reunite man with God, and to reunite man with himself.


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Moses and Aaron represent two different aspects of leadership. Moses was a teacher of Torah. He taught truth -- direct, clear, unadulterated truth. Aaron sought peace. While the pursuit of peace may sometimes seem to compromise truth, appearances are deceiving. Peace emanates from God. Peace is neither a compromise nor a perversion of truth. It is an expression of Godliness; indeed, it is the very name of God. Truth is a means of approaching God, while peace is the destination. In reality, truth and peace work together, as we see from the verse in Psalms:

Kindness and truth met; justice and peace kissed. (Psalms 85:11)

The Midrash associates kindness with Aaron and truth with Moses; justice with Moses and peace with Aaron (Sh'mot Rabbah 5:10), which should come as no surprise.

The Psalm states that they can embrace and kiss, in expression of harmony, of oneness.

Moses teaches Torah, truth, and he represents justice. In this realm, reality cannot be bent or distorted. Aaron, on the other hand, operates on the level of purity, distanced from death, from the distortions of sin. These two realms are not in conflict. They meet, they kiss, they converge in their ultimate goal, which is oneness, completeness, peace. Truth is a means of achieving the goal, of mending the world. Peace is the result.

Aaron, the archetypal kohen, represents this unity and completeness, as is expressed so beautifully in the Priestly Blessing he is instructed to bestow upon all Israel:

May God bless and safeguard you. May God illuminate His countenance toward you and be gracious to you. May God turn His countenance to you and grant you peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)


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