Rabbi Ari Enkin, rabbinic director of United with Israel, explains how the laws of purity include, primarily, basic respect and tolerance among human beings.
This week’s Torah portion is Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23), which means “to say” or “to address.”
As the opening verse of the portion says: “God said to Moses, ‘Speak to the kohanim (priests), the sons of Aaron, and say to them that they should not become impure for a person among their people.'”
The reading then continues with laws of purity and impurity, especially as they relates to the Kohanim.
For example, the first of these mitzvot (commandments) relating to purity is the prohibition against coming into contact with a dead body. That’s right, with the exception of one’s seven closest relatives, a Kohen – a male of the priestly class – is forbidden to attend a burial. So, too, a Kohen may not be in the same building as a corpse, enter a cemetery or even be in close proximity to a dead body in an open space according to the Torah laws of purity.
More about this opening verse in a moment.
We now find ourselves in the period between Passover and Shavuot. Passover, of course, is the Festival of Freedom, and Shavuot is the festival in which we celebrate the receiving of the Torah. This period, however, is somewhat mournful in nature. The reason is that during this time, the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva perished. We are told that many of these students had reached such a level of spiritual greatness that they were comparable to Moses!
So why did they all die?
Our sages teach us that it was because they did not treat one another with the required respect and decency. They did not “Love your fellow as you love yourself.” Furthermore, there is an important principle in the laws of loving your fellow as you love yourself, and that is: Kol Yisrael Areivim Zeh Bazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another. The students of Rabbi Akiva were all scholars, but they did not treat one another with the honor they deserved. Each one cared only about himself. There wasn’t enough “responsible for one another” between them.
Had they observed the laws of purity by showing appropriate respect for each other, the honor and glory of Torah in the world would have been huge and tremendous. Sadly, this was a lost opportunity. The glory of Torah was diminished because they did not treat one another well.
We must learn from their mistakes and do the opposite. We have to generate honor of Torah, honor of God, and honor and love among mankind.
Haughtiness and Disregard for Others Violate Laws of Purity
It is no coincidence that Emor is read during the period between Passover and Shavuot. Allow me to suggest a new interpretation for the verse quoted above. Perhaps the “impure among their people” is also a message to every single one of us – not just to the Kohanim. Maybe the Torah is also warning all of us not to become “impure” – in terms of bad attributes and character traits. Rudeness is “impure,” haughtiness is “impure” and disrespect and disregard for others is “impure.”
By observing the laws of purity through proper behavior towards one another, we can rectify the sin and tragedy of Rabbi Akiva’s students who were, well, “impure” from the perspective of how they treated one another. The period between Passover and Shavuot is precisely the time to work on this aspect of our lives. Try it! You would certainly make Rabbi Akiva proud!