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Dan Has Questions About Holidays, Punishments, and Fairness: Parshat Emor

05/04/2023 09:24:10 AM


Dan Leemon

This week’s Parshah, Emor, is filled with various topics that are ripe for questions and discussion.  
Emor means “speak”, and the Parshah begins with God telling Moses to speak to the priests about the special standards by which they must live, to keep themselves clean and pure and able to perform their duties.  Again – as with how we keep ourselves clean, what to do when we’re sick, what we should and should not eat – there are a lot of rules that require us to be mindful both of the little things we do all day long and the bigger choices we make during our lives.
We then hear more laws about sacrifices, two of which have to do with sacrificing animals.  The first says to be sure to leave newborn sheep, goats, or oxen with their mothers for at least seven days, and the second says never to slaughter or sacrifice an animal and its offspring on the same day.

- What do you think is the reason for these rules? 
-What do these rules want us to be aware of?

The Parshah then goes on to describe the calendar of Jewish holidays.  There are seven holidays listed — we have many more now, but see if you can guess which ones were the first ones, way back in the ancient times of the Torah.  Hint:  The word “holiday” derives from the words “Holy Day”.  Here’s another hint:  One of them comes more than once a year.
Here they are:  
1) Shabbat (that’s the one that comes more than once a year)
2) Pesach (Passover), to remember and treasure our freedom from slavery
3) Shavuot (The Feast of Weeks), at the end of the spring harvest, seven weeks after Passover
4) Rosh Hashanah, when sounding the shofar reminds us of how we aspire to be holy
5) Yom Kippur, the day we remember to atone for our mistakes and sins
6) Sukkot, the festival of the fall harvest (and, in modern times, a remembrance of our time in the wilderness), and
7) Shemini Atzeret, a special day of rest at the end of Sukkot.  

- What Jewish holidays can you think of that are missing from this list?  

Chanukah and Purim, of course — the events these holidays commemorate took place long after the Torah was written; Simchat Torah, the celebration of the Torah, when we “rewind” (literally) and start reading the Torah all over again; Tu B’Shvat, the “New Year Of The Trees”, when spring begins to arrive and plant and animal life is renewed; Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer (yesterday!), a somewhat mystical holiday that is the one day of the Omer when we are supposed to be outdoors,  light bonfires, and celebrate; Tisha B’Av, when we mourn the destruction of the holy temple in Jerusalem, and various other fast days and commemorations throughout the year.

- What is your favorite Jewish holiday?  Why?
- What is your least favorite?  Why?
- What other holidays or special days do you celebrate besides the Jewish holidays?
- What other religious holidays do you know of that are not Jewish holidays?
- Thinking about all of these holidays, religious, secular, major, minor, personal:  Why do you think holidays exist?  What are the purposes of having holidays?


The Parshah ends with a disturbing story.  A man has an argument with another man.  He gets so angry that he curses the other man, using God’s name in the curse.  Remember that the third of the 10 Commandments is “do not take the name of God in vain”, which means not to use God’s name in doing something bad.  The Torah tells us that this man’s punishment was to be executed. The only other crime for which this Parshah lists execution as the punishment is murder.  The Parshah then goes on to list various punishments for various crimes of injuring people and animals, repeating the idea from earlier in the Torah that the punishment should be proportional to the crime (“an eye for an eye”), not harsher, and not based on the status of the person who committed it.   The Torah emphasizes that punishments should be fair and not vary whether the guilty person is a long-term member of the local community, someone who has joined the community recently, or a stranger. 

- Why do you think taking God’s name in vain was seen as such as serious crime, as the equivalent to murder?
- Has anyone ever used your name in vain — for example, did something bad and claimed that you told them to do it?  How might this affect you if they falsely claimed it was your idea?
- Why does the Torah emphasize that punishments should be the same regardless of who the criminal is? In particular, why does the Torah mention that people of different backgrounds, citizens and non-citizens, should be treated equally? 


Just when you think the Torah is full of outdated rituals about sacrifices and portable synagogues, it surprises us with mitzvot our society struggles with today: making sure punishments are proportional to crimes, making sure all are treated fairly and equally in our courts and society.  And the Torah challenges us to keep making progress.
Shabbat shalom,

Fri, April 19 2024 11 Nisan 5784