Leviticus, a priestly book, has as its primary focus an emphasis on the cleanliness of the community and its adherence to ritual matters for the sake of God’s blessings. Rituals performed perfectly availed the community of God’s gifts; whereas, rituals performed perfunctorily or haphazardly earned them God’s wrath, or at least the absence of blessings. Reading the Torah for proper understanding was at the heart of the matter, which ultimately landed upon the Rabbis to do. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE by the Roman legions, understanding how the priestly cult was conducted would enable the cult to resume when a third Temple might be erected. Notwithstanding their own hope for a return to the sacrificial cult, the intricacies of the Rabbis’ interpretations still bear on us as we hope that clean living might also avail us of God’s blessings in our days.
To the Rabbis, Torah was given by God on Sinai to Moses, letter by letter, word by word, including the white spaces. Torah, presumed to be free from error, nevertheless contained words and phrases that seemed, to the untrained eye, to be redundant or even superfluous. To the Rabbis, these textual conundrums fueled their ambition to explain, resolve, and teach Torah’s hidden lessons.
In the portion called, Emor, a significant redundancy occurs in the Hebrew text. We read that God said to Moses: Emor el hakohanim b’nei Aharon, ve-amarta aleihem… “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them…” (Leviticus 21:1). An examination of this verse reveals a double use of the word, “say,” from the Hebrew root amar. The first occurrence is in the imperative form, Emor! said with force. The second is in the imperfect form (familiarly, the future tense), ve-amarta, “and you shall say to them.” Of all the places where the Hebrew root (amar) is found in Torah, it is repeated only in our verse. Given its unique occurrence here, it demands an explanation.
Rashi (11th century) taught, “The repetition of the verb is intended to admonish the adults about their children; that they should teach their children to avoid uncleanliness” (Rashi on Leviticus 21:1). To illustrate his point, Rashi points us to the Ten Commandments. There we find in the commandment regarding the Sabbath, “You shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter…” (Exodus 20:8). The reason for this reference and not others is that it shares the relationship between parent and child, and the conveyance of sacred practices that lead to cleanliness and God’s blessings. Furthermore, the penalty for desecrating the Sabbath was death, so the reference reflects the extraordinary importance of the priests’ work and their sons’ work on behalf of the community.
In the commandment about the Sabbath, we read, “You shall not do any work.” This part of the verse commands parents regarding their observance of the Sabbath. Then we read, “you, your son or daughter…” (Exodus 20:10). This part of the verse commands parents about their children’s observance of the Sabbath, and, indeed, all the commandments.
Just as the priests in the Temple were obligated to uphold high standards of purity and piety for the sake of the community, parents were seen as bearers of this obligation for the sake of their children. Priests and parents alike were held to higher standards of behavior and ethics. They were role models and exemplars to those who depended on them for access to God’s greatest blessings.
The parallel between priests and parents is apt. For Rashi in the 11th century, and for us in ours, laying the ol mitzvah, the “yoke of the commandments” on the shoulders of Jewish parents and then on their children was consistent with the promise made at Sinai between God and the Israelites, and already a proven measure of Judaism’s promised future. But a yoke of commandments can feel like a meaningless, inexplicable burden when adults don’t make the effort to convey the teachings in a way that can be understood — and even cherished — by the next generation. What’s more, if a Third Temple were ever to be built, which was not outside the scope of prayers of 11th century and medieval rabbis, future generations would be its builders.
I remember a young man whose parents didn’t perform their Jewish obligations well. When the young man came to see me about his bar mitzvah speech, he buried his hands in his pockets and his face turned toward the ground. When he used one hand to toss me his speech he said, “My mother wrote it. She made me write those things.” I read it. Our discussion led to his admitting that he didn’t know why he was becoming a bar mitzvah. After all, he said, we don’t do anything Jewish at home. His parents thought he was being uncooperative. I thought he was right-on. Before we wrapped up, I assured him that his bar mitzvah speech was his and for him to write. If he had truly done all the work and assumed all the responsibilities of his bar mitzvah then he, alone, was the best one to express an understanding of his Judaism and bar mitzvah. Then he put his hands behind his head and leaned back, comfortably. He came through on his bar mitzvah day with a speech worthy of his age and understanding. His parents were visibly moved by his sincerity and intentionality.
At best, b’nai mitzvah boys and girls benefit from their parents’ role-modeling by choosing to replicate the religious, ethical, and ritual duties they observe and learn from them. When teenagers accept the ol mitzvot, the “yoke of the commandments” with a sense of understanding or connection, they walk like oxen that respond to their master’s commands down a path that needs sowing and cultivating. B’nai mitzvah boys and girls are not beasts of burden, but they bear similar duties. With the proper guidance, the path they walk can be a straight one, setting seeds that later become plants to be harvested to nourish a people. But, if the path isn’t straight and seeds are set where they shouldn’t be sown, the seeds will be trampled; they won’t yield what the people need to survive.
The opening words of our parashah, therefore, are critical to everything that follows. Emor, “say” to yourself (parents, grandparents, adults) what is expected of you because you are Jewish; Ve-amarta, and say it for your children to hear, for they will learn from your example. So it is that our tradition endures from one generation to the next; from hands of experience to hands of youth, our Judaism is able to thrive.
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.