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Speak Low When You Speak Love

Torah Talk on Emor 5780

Emor, our Torah portion this week in Leviticus, begins as so many others do: God gives commands to the people of Israel. But the language this time is a little different. Usually, commandments begin with the Hebrew word “Dabeir, speak to the Children of Israel” or occasionally, “Tzav, command the Children of Israel.” This time the much softer word “Emor, say to the priests, the Children of Aaron” is used. Why?

There is a clue in the continuation of the first sentence of our portion, Our sedrah actually begins, “Say to the priests…” and then adds “and say to them…” As the commentators do not believe that the Torah is ever truly redundant, the Talmud (in Talmud Bavli, Yevamot 114a) teaches that there is a subtle message here: be cautious in how we adults speak to children. Emor means to speak softly and kindly. Good advice in instructing children at any time.

But why specifically is this word, emor used twice in regard to the priestly commands? The priests are not children.

Perhaps the essence lies in the central message of holiness given to our ancestors, articulated forcefully at the start of last week’s portion of Kedoshim: you shall all be holy for I, God, am holy. Here in Emor, as the specifics of the designated representatives of the people in holiness are articulated, the change to softer language is notable. The priests are the ones who actually have to help the people achieve that holiness.

They must be given the careful, scrupulous requirements, but also inspired to do that work with devotion and passion. There will be a balance to maintain between conscientious, obsessive attention to detail and finding a way to communicate the sacredness of their calling to the Jewish people, who are not as occupied with its processes and may not be as emotionally invested in it as they are.

Thus the word used here is emor, speak, explain, teach and inspire, not simply dabeir, tell, command, order, require.

In leading anyone towards holiness there must be a serious, conscientious devotion to quality. Badly performed rituals inspire no one. But there must also be a demonstrated process of caring about the way those processes are experienced by the devotees—even, perhaps especially, a love for both the process and the result.

This week of Emor may we be inspired to seriously, and caringly, seek holiness in our lives through our Jewish practice, and seek to inspire others to do so as well.

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