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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Emor

Parashat Emor

Iyar 15, 5780 – May 9, 2020

Torah Reading: Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Emor, which is Hebrew for “say.” This word, emor, is among the most frequently used words in the Torah. In fact, it appears twice in the opening line of this parashah (Heb: וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־משֶׁ֔ה אֱמֹ֥ר; Eng: Hashem said to Moshe: say [to the Kohanim]), and is most widely recognizable in the Hebrew verbal form wayyiqtol, which is used to express the narrative past tense (vayyomer). It also begins the third verse of the Shema, which is a prayer that is traditionally recited twice daily and before bed. The prevalence of this word throughout the Torah reminds us of the significance of words and speech. Within the tradition of Judaism, words are also things, and this is evidenced by the Hebrew word for ‘words’ – devarim – which can be translated as words, but also things and matter. When we speak, we are creating real, tangible things and in this way become active participants in a creative process. At first glance, the implications of this point may not seem immediately relevant. Parashat Emor begins by describing a few additional laws that pertain to the kohanim, such as: the ritual impurity that results from contact with a dead body, not shaving the edges of the beard, and not being able to marry a woman whom has been divorced. If any kohen has some type of physical deformity, this also restricts their ability to take part in the Temple service. Such deformities also apply to the eligibility of offerings, which are known as “blemished animals.” (22:20) But before this section of the Torah describes the annual “Callings of Holiness” (Heb: Mikraei Kodesh),[1] we read this commandment: “You shall not desecrate My holy Name, rather I should be sanctified among the Children of Israel.” (22:32) In the Stone Edition Chumash, the commentary to this verse states (and I quote):

“The primary privilege and responsibility of every Jew, great or small, is to sanctify G-d’s name through [their] behavior, whether among Jews or among gentiles – by studying Torah and performing the commandments, and by treating others kindly, considerately, and honestly, so that the people say of [them]: ‘Fortunate are the parents and teachers who raised such a person.’ Conversely, there is no greater degradation for a Jew than to act in a way that will make people say the opposite (Yoma 86a).”[2]

With this, we must ask: What does it mean to sanctify G-d’s Name? How can we treat others kindly, considerately, and honestly? And how does the act of speaking relate to our expression of an honest and compassionate environmentalism?

The greatest kryptonite of environmental activism is anger. For those of us who are driven to try and better the state of the world, it is not uncommon to (occasionally) succumb to negative emotional states, such as: sadness, fear, or worry. Activism, of any kind, is driven by a sense of discontent and dissatisfaction with the status quo, and – for this reason – there are inherent pitfalls within the nature of the forces that inspire change. But our responsibility is not to be motivated or obsessed – primarily – by the anger we have for the problems of this world. Although, there is a way we can use that passion to fuel a greater transformative process. From a traditional, rabbinic point of view, this is known as sublimation. In essence, we all have a part of us that has a tendency to misuse, or abuse, negative aspects of the physical realm; this is known as the yetzer harah, or the “evil inclination.” The antagonist to the “evil inclination” is what you would expect – the “good inclination,” which comprises the impulses and instincts that nurture the positive aspects of the world. In Hebrew, this is known as the yetzer hatov. The word yetzer is related to the Hebrew word tziyur, meaning “form.”[3] Both of these inclinations are like channels; they give material form to the immaterial passions of our soul. There is nothing innately “evil” about emotive states such as anger or fear – they exist in a realm that the Kabbalists refer to as “Kelipat nogah,”[4] which houses a type of ‘optional’ potentiality. It’s optional (reshut) because it contains good, but it requires our participation to actualize the potential inherent within it. Kelipat nogah is an in-between realm, as it sits between the overtly good realm of pure kedushah (holiness) and absolute evil (sitra achra).[5] It is also the realm of the animal soul, which is sometimes conflated with the yetzer harah. But these are not the same thing and they cannot be used interchangeably. The reason that emotions like anger are not inherently evil is because they pertain to the animal soul. The animal soul is concerned with physical desires and physical needs; and for this reason, you could make the argument that the animal soul is the part of our personhood that helps us to survive and navigate concrete challenges. Sensations like pain, or emotions like anger or fear, alert us to a threat. But trouble arises when we employ the yetzer harah to actualize basic instincts that have negative outcomes. A simple example would be a process whereby we allow our anger to be converted into hate or jealousy, and that – then – leads to a variety physical action that defaces the material. This is when anger becomes kryptonite. It’s our job to sublimate, or actualize, the inherent good of the animal soul to uplift the mundane of the material realm.

Capitalism, the military industrial complex, and various forms of imperialism are all entities that are defacing the material. That’s a fairly obvious point to make – just ask the Sioux Tribe and the challenges they’ve encountered fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline, or other indigenous communities that have had their water poisoned from fracking or enriched uranium. The suggestion within Parashat Emor is about paying close attention to the words we use to critique institutions of power, as our choice of language can have a tangible effect on our capacity to instigate material change. Prior to the partaking of the Eitz Hadaat, the Tree of Knowledge, we are told that there was no mixing of good and evil in the world.[6] From this, we also come to understand that neither Adam nor Eve had a yetzer harah – the natural tendency of their nature was to fulfill the will of their maker. This is a condition that follows the first creation myth in Genesis, which changes after the eating, and Adam and Eve step-down into a lower world in need of repair.[7] But there’s a fundamental lesson inherent in an event that follows the partaking of the Eitz Hadaat – Adam’s naming of the animals. With this stepping-down also came the introduction of polarities, a mixing of those polarities, and a variety of differentiation that requires the intercession of the human. With the power to name also came the great responsibility to sanctify G-d Name – this means naming things properly, and according to their nature. To abuse this power is also to succumb to the temptation of the yetzer harah, and to misuse the function of free will. In the Talmud (Pesachim 3a), Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi said: “A person should never utter an ugly word; the Torah adds on eight letters just to avoid using an ugly word.” (Pesachim 3a) This provides a bit more context to the laws of lashon hara (19:16) discussed last week in Parashat Kedoshim, which forbids slander and speaking ill of other people. The way we name things has to suit the circumstance, and we actually do ourselves a disservice by using negative words. This is why the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson) insisted on not criticizing anyone by name, and by providing news ways to describe things that are better suited to their intentions. One well-known example was his creation of a new term for the Hebrew word for hospital – Beit Cholim, literally House of the Sick.[8] The Rebbe, rather, used the term Beit Refuah, literally a House of Healing, to describe a place where one works for healing instead of sickness. This inventive way of thinking is a critical lesson for how we manage our activism. In a world of hashtags and twitter posts, where an engine of activism is social media, it’s vitally important that we anticipate the correct naming of our movements and the words that represent the healing we wish to instill.

This week’s parashah also describes the period between Pesach and Shavuot known as Sefirat HaOmer – the Counting of the Omer. This is a period of time where we reflect, and work, on the qualities that bring us closer to G-d. Traditionally, during this time, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) is also read, which is a tractate in the Mishnah.[9] In a passage concerning wisdom, strength, wealth, and honor, Rabbi Ben Zoma says: “Who is he that is honored? He who honors his fellow human beings.” (Pirkei Avot, Ch 4)[10] The word in this passage that is used to describe fellow human beings is ha-briyot (הַבְּרִיּוֹת), which has come to mean human beings, but may have broader implications. The word briyot has the same root – bet, reish, aleph – as the word for creatures, or creation. It is a word that harkens hack to the first line of the Torah, Bereshit bara Elohim, and implores us – that if we are to be honored – we must honor all of creation. All of the plants, all of the animals, all the things that creep and crawl, and all human beings – we must speak honestly about all of creation if we are to sanctify G-d’s name. This is how we can treat others compassionately and enact an environmentalism that moves in a direction of positive change, and constructive transformation.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: Speech and its relationship to environmentalism, the animal soul and ‘optional’ potentiality, and honoring all of creation through activism

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Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] These are the festivals of the calendar year (including Shabbat), which are also referred to as “Moadim” or “appointed times” [2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.681 [3] [4] [5] Quite literally “the other side,” as in the other side of G-d’s holiness [6] [7] In Judaism, there’s an idea that the ba’al teshuvah is greater than the tzadik because a greater distance is traveled in their journey back to righteousness. Or, put another way, one who subdues the yetzer harah has accomplished a greater feat than one who doesn’t need to. This is one theological explanation for Adam and Eve’s descent into a world requiring teshuvah. [8] [9] Second to last tractate (Avot) in the fourth order of the Mishnah (Nezikin, meaning Damages) [10]

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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