Finding Sanctity

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Emor

Three of the four comments I found for this time address how we bring kedushah into the world. While we usually translate the word along the lines of “sanctity’” let’s see how well these comments fit the definition.

The first, HaKetav VeHaKabbalah’s comment to 24;21, focuses on another topic I have long thought underrecognized, kim lei be-de-rabbah minei, the Talmudic principle exempting someone liable for death from any payments connected to the sin/crime. [We perhaps don’t discuss it much because we do not administer such punishments today. It does still affect our view of the seriousness of sins with a theoretical death penalty.]

For a simple example, if a Jew damages property while in the act of killing another Jew, s/he will not have to pay. The simplest explanation focuses on the killer– it’s not “fair” to make him/her undergo two punishments– or the courts, restricted (by the Torah) from administering two punishments. Our verse, 24;21, makes both readings insufficient.

Proximity Produces Parallels

It tells us one who kills an animal must pay for it, one who kills a human will be put to death. Bava Kamma 35 takes the verse to compare the two, what is true of one is true of the other. The Talmud holds adam mu’ad le-olam, humans are always responsible for damage they cause, regardless of the person’s awareness of what s/he was doing. A person who kills an animal would have to pay even if s/he did so be-shogeg, unwittingly.

Transferring that to humans isn’t so simple. The Gemara says just as the killer of the animal pays regardless of motive, the killer of a person is treated as if s/he is going to be put to death, and therefore exempt from payment. Counterintuitively, a theoretical death penalty eases this person’s life.

R. Mecklenburg attributes the exemption to the death the killer would have incurred had s/he committed deliberate murder. He seems to understand the Gemara to mean that since we don’t look to motive when a person kills an animal, we similarly don’t when a person, God forbid, kills another. We consider him/her to have committed a death penalty crime, for the purposes of whether s/he must pay.

In fact, this verse sets up the general principle, anyone whose unwitting violation would have gotten the death penalty is still exempt from payment. R. Mecklenburg suggests this explains the verse’s wording, yumat, shall be killed, where actual executions are phrased mot yumat, shall be put to death.

Some Acts Are Serious, Regardless of Intention

It seems to show an element of capital liability regardless of motive and/or an actual punishment. [He doesn’t explain further. To me, he seems to be saying what I already think, so maybe I’m fooling myself. He seems to me to be saying these acts themselves deserve death, regardless of what the person thought as s/he did it (It reminds me, fondly in retrospect, of when I would protest to my father, a”h, “I didn’t mean it!” to be told, “You should mean it yet?”).

We have convinced ourselves of the paramount importance of motive, cannot imagine life could be morally forfeit for a mistake. Nonetheless, I think that’s what the Torah means, what Chazal meant, and what R. Mecklenburg meant. That Jew A killed Jew B, or violated Shabbat, or worshipped a power other than God, deserves death, even if Jew A did not realize what s/he was doing.

[Maybe to help make it a bit more intuitive, suppose someone pressed the nuclear button and blew up the world, basically, but thought it was justified, or thought this button was not operational. The world will still have blown up, and this person will still have done it.]

For the payment part, I suggest that such guilt renders money too trivial to add to the picture. It’s not an exemption out of sympathy, it’s a resistance to letting money cloud the main focus, the serious sin this person has done.

Shabbat Has Many Roles, Including Grounding Holidays

When the Torah introduces the holidays, it starts, 23;3, with Shabbat. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch comments on the many mentions of Shabbat in the Torah suggests that each time teaches us a new role for the experience. The Shabbat of Creation teaches us about God’s Creating the world in six days, the Shabbat of the desert (where man did not fall), conveys the proper attitude towards earning a living, knowing it really come from God and we can put it away for a day a week, the Shabbat of the Aseret HaDibberot a foundation of coming to know Hashem, and many more.

In our parsha, the Torah shows us Shabbat in the framework of holidays. All these special days are times to spend with God, as it were, but the holidays are set by the nation itself, given the role of courts in setting the calender. Shabbat teaches us not to think all such days are human-driven, because it happens with or without human input, every seven days without fail. R. Hirsch calls it the starting point and peak of sanctified time, is the vehicle to . teach humanity about God’s rule over nature and history, lessons all the holidays teach in their own ways as well.

With that foundation, he rejects the idea that Shabbat’s “rest” is for people. It is a day of praising God, and refraining from certain activities expresses the praise. One more aspect of Shabbat to add to our list.

The Real Kiddush Hashem

Malbim to 22;32 notes the passive form of the command to sanctify God’s Name. The beginning of the verse prohibits chillul, sacrilege or mistreatment, but the end speaks of ve-nikdashti, I will be sanctified, in the passive form. Malbim first says the Torah is recognizing a middle ground, such as coerced violation of the Torah. There is no chillul under such pressures, but also no kiddush, which the verse wanted.

Kiddush occurs in two ways, through ordinary good deeds and through God’s miraculous salvation. The former is more fully in our hands, so the verse should have commanded us to do it, if that is what it meant. Said this way, Malbim thinks it wants us to know we should make sure to be worthy of God’s miraculous intervention (he says shidud ha-teva, a miracle where the natural order is suspended or overcome).

Jews’ overcoming their nature, suppressing/subjugating their physical tendencies in the name of serving God, in the larger world (second week in a row we have seen him think of people as a microcosm), God will overcome nature for us, too. They have to do so without ulterior motive, he adds, with the example of Chananiah, Mishael, and Azaryah, who had no hope or expectation of being saved when they refused to bow to a statue, knowing they would be thrown in a furnace. Their salavation was a much greater kiddush Hashem than their ordinary mitzvot would have produced.

We can’t ourselves be mekadesh Hashem the best way, by producing miracles. We can and should—Malbim says—work to be worthy of the highest kiddush Hashem, where God steps in, overcomes Nature, and shows Himself in the salvation of the Jewish people.

The Kedushah of the Kohanim

R. David Tsvi Hoffmann’s comment to 21;6 looks at another type of sanctity, that of thekohanim. The verse tells us they must bekedoshim to their God, must not sacrilege their God’s Name, because of their role in the sacrificial service. His discussion starts with wondering how this differs from 20;26, where God commanded all Jews to be kedoshim.

In his view, our verse adds to the kedushah required of them, with the example of their refraining from contact with those who have passed away, and especially from inappropriate mourning practices. Should they disobey the rules set for them, they inherently sacrilege the Name, because they are known as kohanei Hashem, priests of God (meaning that people will always take their actions to reflect on God, as it were).

He attributes the requirement to their role as intermediaries between the people and God, their being the staff of the Temple where the people can sacrifice to God. He seems to me (although again, I thought this before I saw this comment, so I may be reading self-servingly) to be saying the rules given kohanim are not ideal rules we hope all humans keep.

Rather, to fulfill this role—a role Sifra thinks the entire people are obligated to safeguard and ensure the kohanim perform—they need these rules, even those who do not in fact offer sacrifices. Being a representative of God requires living this way, a lifestyle not necessarily needed to be a good Jew or human.

People can deserve to forfeit their lives without malicious intent, Shabbat reminds us that some sanctity of time happens outside our control, the highest kiddush Hashem comes with miracles that overcome Nature, but we can earn those if we live properly, and kohanim’s sanctity is specific to them, part of a role as God’s representatives. In Parshat Emor.

About Gidon Rothstein

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