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  • Writer's pictureAyelet HaShachar

Purity, Goodness and Emor

The following Dvar Torah was written by Max Babus for Parshat Emor on 14 Iyar 5780 / 8 May 2020.

Considering last week’s portion had many many rules, you’d think G-d or biblical Jewish society would’ve run out of ways to tell people how to live. But, we’re not getting a break from rules any time soon as we turn to this week’s parsha (Emor).

These rules though are of a different flavour to the ones that were covered last week. The laws in parsha Emor concern the customs of the kohanim as well as special practices pertaining to the high priest and instructions for the festivals of Yom Kippur and Sukkot.

The rules outlined in parsha Emor have mostly to do with what is considered pure in classical Judaism, who can offer sacrifices and how the priests can avoid defiling themselves. Methods of avoiding defiling yourself as a priest include things like not shaving your beard and marrying a virgin. If you’re the high priest, you’re subject to even more rules such as not cutting your hair or not ripping your clothes. And if you’re your basic biblical Jew offering a sacrifice, not handling insects and not having broken arm help keep you pure. Alongside a whole bunch of rules for purity, the parsha also says that one can also purify themselves if they have previously been considered impure by bathing in water.

But beyond, simple facts of cleanliness like these (alongside this ritual bath, I do recommend you wash your hands), parsha Emor also struck a note with our modern notions of purity and goodness. Goodness comes in two forms. Firstly, I think that goodness can be a matter of cause and effect. Eating chocolates from a box of them makes me feel good, therefore the box of chocolates is good. A nice biblically recommended purifying bath also does feel good and thus it Is good. Secondly (and what parsha Emor is mainly concerned with) is goodness as an obligation. Simply, what we think is good is what we think we should do. I feel like I should study for my university exams, therefore study is good. I feel like I should visit my extended family, therefore my family is good.

Purity’s something a little different, I think that purity suggests that the goodness an object carries is result of its nature. Parsha Emor tells us that physical perfection is pure, animal sacrifices should not have physical defects and those who offer sacrifices to G-d need to be similarly physically unblemished. With physical perfection being considered pure, we can see it as something that is naturally good. Research shows that we reflect this thinking, with the halo effect around attractive people resulting in them being perceived as more intelligent and more successful.

Rules of purity and goodness were seen in biblical times to be strict standards. As a priest, you had to abide by these laws otherwise you weren’t consider a priest. But, I think that in modern times, we should take our lines of purity and goodness as guidelines. This is often because if we pursue complete purity and goodness, it can have negative consequences. Studying for university exams is good, but too much study can lead to burnout. Visiting your extended family is also good, but under the current circumstances, is probably not so good. In the same token, relentless pursuit of physical perfection can lead to self-esteem problems.

Whilst it’s important to keep the negative consequences of over valuing purity and goodness in mind, we shouldn’t throw these standards out completely. Instead, these standards should remain adaptable to our current circumstances. Studying for exams helps me complete my degree but we all need some unproductive downtime. Visiting my family is nice but I should give them a phone call instead of seeing them in person. Pursuing physical perfection is not an inherently bad thing, but even The Rock has a few cheat days.

We also can’t have any discussion of purity without not mentioning the most holy day in Judaism – Yom Kippur, which in a parsha so focused on purity has kindly remembered to include for us. Interestingly, there’s no reference to the actual ritual itself, the parsha chooses to focus on the fact that we should all feel afflicted on Yom Kippur, even going so far to ascribe exile to one who does not feel afflicted. Whilst this message is a rather odd in that it prescribes feelings of unhappiness, it still speaks to the fact that sometimes the things that are naturally good as well as the associated duties that come with things we think are good can’t really come without some form of affliction – just be sure to keep the negative consequences of endless pursuits of goodness in mind.

Shabbat Shalom.

Max is a university student and humanist Jew.

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