A Few Thoughts on Emor

“Holiness, Leviticus tells from chapter 19 onward, is not only the special preserve of an elite, the priests. It belongs to the people as a whole, for they are “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks ז״ל, Covenant a & Conversation: Leviticus: The Book of Holiness, New Milford: Maggid Press, 2015, p 355).

Leviticus 19 begins with HaShem’s command to Moses, “Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’” (Leviticus 19:2). This saying is the heart of what is known as the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26), while Leviticus itself has been described as a handbook for the Kohanim (priests) and Levites, summarizing their duties in service to HaShem and as mediators between Bnei Israel and HaShem. While this seems to be the main focus of the book, it also serves as a guidebook, defining the parameters of what it means to be a holy, set-apart people. Interestingly, the word holiness appears more than one hundred and fifty times in Leviticus, more than in any other book in the Tanakh or Apostolic Writings. 

This week’s parasha, Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23, first continues its ongoing discourse to the Kohanim by addressing additional situations that could call their holiness into question into question, then discusses the acceptable conditions of various offerings that can be presented to HaShem and then in chapters 23 and 24 returns to addressing all the congregation of Israel to be holy as the LORD our God is holy. In chapter 23, Bnei Israel is given a glance at HaShem’s yearly Day-Timer in which he sets forth weekly as well as seasonal moadim or specific times which he has purposefully set aside to meet with his covenantal people.

This Day-Timer is especially important as the designated times are not set apart just for the kohanim and Levites, not for the elders and leaders of the community, rather they set apart for all of Bnei Israel. At the very outset, HaShem defines the purpose of these special times; they are to be his holy convocations—”My moadim” (Leviticus 23:2). Four times in the chapter’s forty-four verses, Moses is commanded to speak to Bnei Israel (Leviticus 23:2, 10, 24, & 34), describing the individual meeting times that HaShem determined to meet with all of his people. Likewise, four times HaShem reiterates that these moadim are statutes forever, throughout all of Israel’s generations in all of Israel’s dwelling (Leviticus 23:14, 21, 31, & 41). 

In meeting with Hashem during his designated moadim, we “keep the mitzvot and do them” (Leviticus 22:32). In keeping the moadim, we not only proclaim but exemplify the holiness of HaShem as one experiences his presence within the holy community. As Rabbi Sacks noted, holiness is not just a state or condition of the kohanim and Levites but a condition that we all should strive to attain. 

In the Second Temple Period, one of the goals of the Pharisees was to bring the holiness of the Temple down to the common person. According to Jacob Neusner ז״ל, the Pharisees held that “the commandment, ‘You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy people,’ was taken literally: Everyone is a priest, everyone stands in the same relationship to God, and everyone must keep the priestly laws.” (Jacob Neusner, From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1972, p 83) In other words, the Pharisees felt that when HaShem told Moses to, “Speak to all the congregation of the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy’” (Leviticus 19:2), HaShem meant every one of the children of Israel, in every place and aspect of their lives. While the Pharisees’ methods may have left much to be desired, their goal was admirable. If this were not accurate, then Yeshua’s words to his followers would be meaningless, “For I tell you that unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees and Torah scholars, you shall never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:20). The Pharisees have often been accused of being more concerned with outward appearances, not giving proper attention to the heart, and doing the letter of the Law without cultivating a change of heart. It may be said that in their zeal to “do holy” actions”, they lost sight of “being holy.”

In closing, I suggest that both the holiness code as set forth in Leviticus and the fundamental teaching of the Pharisees sought to establish the same purpose: All the people of God should take the responsibility to be holy as HaShem is holy. Holiness has never been simply doing or not doing something; it has always included the proper heart relationship with HaShem in our doing or not doing. Peter, in writing to his communities, affirmed this when he wrote,

So, brace your minds for action. Keep your balance. And set your hope completely on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Yeshua the Messiah. Like obedient children, do not be shaped by the cravings you had formerly in your ignorance. Instead, just like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in everything you do. For it is written, “Kedoshim you shall be, for I am kadosh.” 

1 Peter 1:13-16

So, to put Peter’s final statement, from Leviticus 19:2, in more of the vernacular, “All of you, from the least to the greatest, shall be holy, because I, your God, am holy.”

* All Scripture references are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

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