Next’s week’s parashah is called “Emor”. You will find it in the Book of Leviticus 21:1-24:23. In this section, G-d gives the nation through Moses a series of laws specific to the holiness of the priests. The section also provides us with laws regarding a great variety of other subjects including the festival laws, and laws governing both civil and criminal activities for both personal and communal activities.
At first glance, this section appears to be more practical than philosophical. Of the Bible’s 613 mitzvot (Divine regulations) 63 of them are found in this week’s parashah. Within the parashah, Chapter 24 may be both the most challenging and useful to the modern reader. The chapter deals with everything from blasphemy to murder: from inadvertently killing an animal to maiming another human being. Yet if we read this week’s parashah more carefully we see that it has a great deal of ageless philosophical material.
For example, in Parashat Emor, we find one of the least well understood Biblical precepts: the famous “eyin tachat eyin/shen tachat shen-an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth..” For the last two millennia, many non-Jews readers have misunderstood this principle. As is true of much of Hebrew literature, specific nouns referring to parts of the body often have both a tangible and philosophical or abstract meaning. For example, when we say that someone broke another person’s heart, both the speaker and the listener understand the phrase to have a symbolic meaning. In the same way, the Hebrew reader understands the concept of an eye for an eye to be figurative or symbolic.
In this case, the text is making a radical change from other Middle Eastern legal philosophies. Classically in the ancient world (and often in the modern world), we judge a person according to his/her social rank economic or political rank. Even today we hear people who should be brought to justice having been excused from the courts due to this social status. Others who should never have been tried are given harsh sentences due to a double standard of justice. The Bible fought against this idea and insisted that all citizens be treated with equality. Thus “a life for a life,” meant that every life was worth the same and that no one was to take the law into his/her own hands.
This precept also leads us to an important philosophical question that still plagues us today. In both religion and modern politics there are those who are more interested in the literal meaning of the law than in its spirit, more interested in condemning than in understanding. On the other side, there are those who have put so much meaning into their personal interpretation of the law, that they have forgotten what the law’s intent was and whom it was meant to protect. Ancient Israel established the precept: that all were to receive equal justice no matter what their gender, religion, social or economic status might be.
The Biblical text then teaches the importance of balance in law, of honoring the law’s intent and also its spirit. Is this week’s parashah teaching us to read the classical Hebrew text with the goal of finding G-d wherever we look? Have we succeeded in finding ways to bring holiness into our lives, of respecting the law and yet allowing the law to become a moral guide rather than an obstacle course to inter-human relationships? What do you think?
Youtubes of the week:
Celebrating 71 Years of Independence:
A song for Independence Day:
Birthday greetings from around the world: