Emor: Why?

The Lord 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 except for the relatives that are closest to him…
The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God…He may eat of the food of his God…but he shall not enter behind the curtain or come near the altar, for he has a defect. He shall not profane these places sacred to Me, for I the Lord have sanctified them…
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, and to all the Israelite people, and say to them: When any man of the house of Israel or of the strangers in Israel presents a burnt offering as his offering for any of the votive or any of the freewill offerings that they offer to the Lord… you shall not offer any that has a defect, for it will not be accepted in your favor…And when a man offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice of well-being to the Lord for an explicit vow or as a freewill offering, it must, to be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it… (Vayikra 21: 1-2,16-17,22-23. Vayikra 22: 17-21).

Why did You create Your world
with defilement and death?

Why is the disfigured priest
debarred from serving You?

Why, in times of true endeavor,
is accomplishment denied?

Why is this day’s certainty
blurred by tomorrow’s doubt?

Accord us faith to serve You
with our unrequited questions.


In a commentary on Parashat Emor, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5472, Reb Mimi Feigelson describes the very unusual approach to the entire Parasha undertaken by the Ishbitzer Rebbe* (the Mei HaShiloach). She addresses the paradigm of “grievances” the Halachic aspects of which are addressed in the Mishnah, (Bava Metzia 6:1): “One who hired workers (artisans) and they misled each other, only have grievances towards each other…” Reb Mimi says, “Having [a] grievance means that you have a justifiable claim, you have a reason to feel that you have been wronged, but there is no litigable process that can be enacted in the case!” She continues, “Throughout both volumes of his writings, the Mei HaShiloach, the Ishbitzer Rebbe uses this paradigm as a relational stand between us and God. He takes a transactional paradigm that defines a relationship between two people and reads it as a theological paradigm defining our relationship with God! On the one hand we have a justifiable claim against God, and on the other hand, we can’t take God to court, so-to-speak…”
Reb Mimi brings a unique teaching in which the Mei HaShiloach takes most of the parasha (as opposed to a verse or two) and basically divides it into two main sections (the first from the beginning of Emor (Chapters 21-22) and the second, Chapter 23). He then splits each of these into 5 subsections. In the first, the Ishbitzer describes five different subjects each representing “a different realm of grievance towards God.” In the second section he links the descriptions of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur and the three festivals to a remedy for one of the grievances.
Reb Mimi describes the grievances:
“1. Grievance due to living in a world that death and loss are our reality. How can we live in such a world? How could God have created it in such a way?
2. Grievance of the Cohen that was born with a blemish that disqualifies him from serving in the Temple. He can eat from the sacrifices, but is not able to bring the sacrifice itself. He questions God, “You have planted me so close, and yet you don’t allow me to serve…” It is important to point out that the grievance isn’t about the blemish itself but about the challenge it poses to one who is born a Cohen…
3. Grievance of the Cohen that was found impure while being at the Temple, and hence prohibited from serving or even eating from the sanctified meat. He questions: “I have done all that I can to serve you, I would do all in my ability to be able to serve. Why have I been compromised at this moment?”…
4. Grievance because of blemished offerings. You make your way to the Temple with a gift for God and when inspected a blemish is found in the animal and it cannot be offered. You question God: “You have given me a gift. Why can I not be able to return it to You as a gift?”…
5. Grievance due to the fragility of the moment. When a ‘thanksgiving’ offering was brought to the Temple it had to be consumed on the day it was brought. One was not allowed to eat leftovers the next day. The Ishbitzer Rebbe questions: “How can it be that if today I can stand in the presence of God with faith, belief and trust, I can’t be sure of the same feelings tomorrow?” Why is our religious state so fragile and unpredictable? When will I be able to rest in the faith that I’ve come to?””
Reb Mimi continues, “In response to those that think that being a true believer means having answers that explain God’s actions in the world, it appears that the Mei HaShiloach is walking in the footsteps of the Rambam (Maimonides) at the end of the ‘Laws of Embezzlement’. The Rambam asks of us to try to understand the ways of God to the best of our knowledge and ability “k’fi ko’cho,” but when we reach a point of no return, he asks us to not make up stories, to not try to cover up for God, to make God look good “al yech’peh alav d’varim“.
The Ishbitzer takes us one step forward. A disciple of the Ishbitzer Rebbe would be called upon not only to not create answers where they are not present, but rather, to hold on to the questions as an act of faith and true service.”

*Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Ishbitza (1801-1854) was a Chasidic thinker and the founder of the Ishbitza-Radzyn dynasty. Born in Tomashov, he was orphaned of his father at the age of two. He was to become a close disciple of R’ Simcha Bunim of Peshischa where he joined Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and Rabbi Yosef of Yartshev; both were also born in Tomashov. When Rabbi Menachem Mendel became Rebbe in Kotzk, Reb Mordechai Yosef became his disciple there; then in 1839 became himself a rebbe in Tomashov, moving subsequently to Ishbitza.
Rabbi Leiner is best known for his work Mei Hashiloach, a compilation of his teachings by his grandson, in which he expressed the doctrine that all events, including human actions, are absolutely under God’s control. Thus, if everything is determined by God, then even sin is done in accordance with God’s will. He presents defenses of various Biblical sins, such as Korach’s rebellion, Pinchas’s zealotry, and Judah’s incident with Tamar.
One of his most cited comments is as above, on Vayikra 21:1 None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin. Rabbi Leiner read the verse as a warning against the defilement of the soul. The soul is defiled when it is infected with the bitterness and rage that comes with senseless suffering and tragedy. Those who — like the Kohanim — would serve God, are commanded to find the resources to resist the defilements of despair and darkness. Despair is the ultimate denial of God, and surrender to darkness is the ultimate blasphemy.
The publication of Mei Hashiloach was met with controversy and copies of the work were burned.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach is credited with the recent popularization of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner’s teachings. He apparently came across Rabbi Leiner’s work in an old Jewish book store. He is quoted as saying that after initially being perplexed as to the peculiar nature of the teachings he quickly realized that in it lay the “secret for turning Jews on to the deeper meanings of Judaism”.

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