Parashat Emor: The real essence of the Torah

2016-03-06 18.05.37A teacher asks his student, “What is the essence of the Shabbat?” She responds, “The essence of Shabbat is that it is a sign of God’s creation of all things in seven days.” “No,” the teacher responds, “that is not the real essence of Shabbat. What really represents the fundamental meaning of the day?” The student tries again. “Shabbat is the eternal sign of God’s bond with the Jewish people” The teacher shakes his head, disappointed. “What you have said is true,” he says, “but that is not the most important thing you have to remember about the day.” Puzzled, the student gives in, and waits to hear about the real meaning of Shabbat. “The real essence of the day,” he tells her, “the thing you most have to remember, is… we do not rip toilet paper on Shabbat.” (R’ Alexander Kaye)

This story is comical, but also tragic. As it happens there are laws about toilet paper on Shabbat, and many other things besides. But these laws are not meant to obscure, but rather to express and enhance, the values that lie behind them. At its base, this tale represents a question that many Jews confront frequently. Reading the Torah and seeing law after law, restriction after restriction, how can we learn to approach Judaism for what it really is – a positive commitment to principles of infinite value?

Three times within the Torah we find a formulation that deals with compensation for physical harm inflicted by one person upon another. In our Torah reading for this week we are told: “… if a man maim his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him: breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he hath maimed a man, so shall it be rendered unto him. (Leviticus 24.17-22)”

This law of compensation as stated in the Torah has not only been for centuries an accusation by anti-Semites that the law of the Torah is brutal, it has been also for interpreters of the Torah a challenge. Rabbinic interpretation has never regarded the elucidation of the Torah as a literal instruction for compensation, to the contrary. For them the “Lex talionis”, the law of retaliation, is based upon the principle that “the punishment must fit the crime.” Rather than calling for the deliberate physical injury to others as revenge, the Torah created “a law of equivalence”. E.g. if an eye was lost, one paid the worth of an eyes. But rabbinic tradition also refined the principle of equivalent compensation by ruling that payment must take into consideration disability, pain, cost of medical care, loss of earnings, and shame.

Realising that injury to the body or the loss of a limb, can never fully compensated and could spark bloody revenge, Jewish tradition mandates a just form of compensation and reconciliation. In doing so, it advances the cause of justice, the pursuit of peace, and reveals for us a positive commitment to the principles of the Torah and how we should approach the laws of the Torah.

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Harvey J Fields, Parashat Emor)

Torah Reading for Shabbat Emor

Leviticus 21:1-24:23
(Reading Lev 21:1-22:3; P p.819; H p.513);

Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-44:31 (P 846); H p.528)

Parashat Emor, The parashah provides purity rules for priests, recounts the festivals, and tells the story of a blasphemer.

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