Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Parashat Emor: Restraint

A Message for Parashat Emor 2018
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Kedushah is a dominant theme in Sefer VaYikra. It is particularly featured in our current set of parashot, each of which presents a specific facet of sanctity. Whereas Parashat Kedoshim presented kedushah “in action” by means of the missvot, Parashat Emor presents it “in person” – the kohanim, and “in time” with the holidays, while Parashat Behar will demonstrate it “in space,” as manifested by the years of shemitah and yovel. What is the thread that runs through these various kedushot and how can we act upon it in our everyday lives?

The mo’adim are detailed in several places in the Torah. Each description of the holidays highlights a different dimension of the days. Parashat Pinehas (Bemidbar 28-9) mentions them in the context of their unique korbanot, while Parashat Re’eh (Devarim 16) references them as a core part of the centrality of the Mikdash. Parashat Emor (VaYikra 23), however, portrays the mo’adim through the prism of their sanctity. Described as “mikra’ei kodesh,” Emor stresses the prohibition of melakhah on those days. The pesukim’s constant refrain regarding the forbidden labor on the mo’adim suggests that the source of their sanctity lies in that restraint.

Indeed, all of the other “kedushah” dimensions of these parashot are underscored by a demand to “hold back”: The kohanim are forbidden to come in contact with the dead and to marry specific women (21:1-16), shemitah and yovel prohibit working the land (25:1-13), and the general command that “you shall be holy” (19:1) was famously envisioned by the Hakhamim as a demand to restrain our sexual desires.[1]

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l described the constant tension between our competing drives towards “majesty” and “humility.” He explained that we seek dominance in all realms of our lives, striving for the best in health, wealth and intellect and doing everything that it takes for their attainment. At the same time, however, we are drawn back to our origins and sometimes feel the natural urge to pull back and “return.” Although this is often felt most during the “low moments” of life, even the courageous explorers anticipate the homecoming at the end of the voyage.

R. Soloveitchik likened our dialectical nature to that of God, who paradoxically manifests his infinite essence in this limited world. Known by the Lurianic mystics as “simsum,” God’s ability to “contract” Himself for creation of this world is thus the paradigm for man’s innate appreciation of his modest and contained origins.[2]

The Gemara (Sukkah 28a) stated that Hillel’s greatest student was Yonatan ben Uziel. Demonstrating the heights of his greatness, the Gemara related that when he was engaged in Torah study birds that flew over him were immediately incinerated. Considering this impressive level of his student, it is intriguing to ponder what strengths the teacher Hillel possessed. A well-known remark in this context is that Hillel’s greatness lay in his ability to withhold his strengths so that any bird flying over his head would not be burned.[3]

Cultivating a character of self-constraint is important for career advancement, as well. Greg Mckeown laid out a map toward “the disciplined pursuit of less” in his engaging book Essentialism. He detailed the many mistakes committed on the path toward the unfocused and less productive life of a “nonessentialist.” Mckeown explained that one distinguishing feature between an “essentialist” and “nonessentialist” is the ability to say “no” to others. He quoted Tom Friel, a former CEO, who remarked, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’ ” Without the strength to turn away, social and societal pressures will push us into counterproductive situations and circumstances.[4]

In addition to the vital role of self-restraint for individual sanctity and success, it is also a necessary component of a healthy society. A society built upon the foundations of intense competition leads to the downfall of many of its individuals. Structured instead by a model of self-restraint and focused on “making room” for one another, however, the community may flourish as a solitary unit.[5]

The various dimensions of sanctity in Parashat Emor and its surrounding parashot invite us to explore the essence of kedushah. Indeed, God’s command that “You shall be holy, for I, God, am holy” (19:2) is a daunting task. Its realization, however, is the result of understanding our conflicting tendencies of strength and restraint and following His lead in a careful balance. Needless to say, a life imbued with this kedushah will positively influence our professional and communal successes, as well.

[1] See the Commentary of Rashi ad loc., s.v kedoshim.
[2] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “Majesty and Humility,” in Confrontation and Other Essays (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg.25-40.
[3] See, most recently, R. Simha Maimon’s mention of this remark in his Shiurei Humash – Mahadura Tinyana vol. 1 (Jerusalem, IS, 2017), pg. 61.
[4] Greg Mckeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York, NY, 2014), pg. 135-43.
[5] See further on this point in Mordechai Rotenberg’s The Psychology of Tzimtzum (New Milford, CT, 2015), pg. 75-96.