Eddie Westerman’s D’var Torah

My Torah portion, Emor, is a portion built on the rules of sacrifice. It covers who can sacrifice, what they can sacrifice, and when they should sacrifice. Only priests who are in perfect physical condition can offer sacrifices, and they can only offer unblemished animals without any injuries or diseases. After reading my portion, I was shocked that there were so many laws limiting who could sacrifice and what they could sacrifice. Though I feel that sacrificing animals is a terrible thing, and the death of an animal hardly connects me to God, I was also dismayed about the unfairness of my portion. I couldn't believe God would want these rules to be in the Torah. How could there be such strict laws you had to follow in order to sacrifice? Only accepting perfect animals offered by perfect priests meant that a lot of people wouldn't be able to sacrifice—if God wanted sacrifices so much, wouldn't God want as many as possible? Blemished priests were excluded from sacrifice simply because they had a different physical appearance or ability. Did God feel that people who broke their legs weren't holy enough to sacrifice? Did God really connect bones and skin to holiness? Did God actually think that only perfection was holy? These questions led me to think about all the perfection required in my portion. I think the perfectionism grows with every rule to the point where it conquers and destroys fairness and equality. There is no fairness for a blemished priest. An “ideal” priest is by no means equal to a blemished priest. The Torah’s strict sacrificing rules could cause positive feelings to diminish, leaving anger and hate behind. As Dr. Rachel Remen wrote, “Wholeness lies beyond perfection…Perfectionism can break your heart and all the hearts around you.” As I thought about perfectionism in my verses, I wondered what other people had said in reaction to these laws, so as part of my studies, I read a story in the midrash. This midrash—the story of Bar Kamtza and the Feast—was written several hundred years after the destruction of the Second Temple. This story relates to my main questions about perfectionism and fairness in my portion, and asks the question: sacrificing was very important to the Israelites, but how seriously should you take the laws?

Here is the story of Bar Kamtza:

There was once a man in Israel who decided to make a feast for his family and friends. He told his servant to invite his friend, Kamtza, but the servant foolishly invited the man’s enemy, Bar Kamtza, instead. On the day of the feast, the host was horrified to find Bar Kamtza, and he told him to leave immediately. Bar Kamtza did not want to be embarrassed, so he offered to pay for what he ate. But the host still forced him to leave—even when he offered to pay for the entire feast! Bar Kamtza was angry with the rabbis who had seen his embarrassment and had done nothing. He walked up to the Caesar, or king, and told him that if the Caesar gave him an offering, the rabbis would refuse to sacrifice it. The Caesar was furious, thinking that rabbis disrespected him, and so he gave Bar Kamtza an animal. While walking to the rabbis, Bar Kamtza blemished it slightly so that it would be unfit for sacrifice. The rabbis decided to sacrifice the animal anyway, so the Caesar would not get mad. There were all set when Rabbi Zechariah, son of Avkulos, came into the scene. He went on and on about how if they sacrificed the animal, everyone would sacrifice blemished animals. Finally, the rabbis agreed with him. They did not sacrifice the animal, and the Caesar was enraged. He destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem. This story really upset me. I know that some people pay very strict attention to laws, but are they worth a whole city? Thousands of people died because of Rabbi Zechariah’s closed–minded decision. If the rabbis would have just made an allowance and sacrificed the animal, people’s lives would have been saved! Risking people’s lives for the specific laws of sacrificing isn’t worth it. The rabbis put rules over lives, and that was their mistake. This story connects to my thoughts about my verses because it is an example of strict observance of laws hurting people. The Rabbis not want to break the law, so they followed the Torah so closely that the consequences damaged the Torah itself. In the same way, the laws in my portion that prevent non–priests from sacrificing animals, that prevent blemished animals from being sacrificed, and that prevent priests with physical disabilities from offering sacrifices, could cause unhappiness and make people feel unwelcome in Judaism. I don’t believe that my portion is supposed to cause those feelings, because why would God want people to remove themselves from Jewish practices, and feel bad about themselves? Yet, if the laws in my portion were always followed, they could kill someone's heart and spirit—and who would want to do that? As modern Jews, our relationship to Jewish laws can be complicated. Some of the rules in the Torah don’t seem to apply to us anymore. We don’t offer sacrifices on holidays, and the Temple isn’t standing in Jerusalem. Life in ancient Judaism is different than today. Rules that may have made sense two thousand years ago are nonsense to us. We may hear something like “don’t reap your entire field; leave some for a stranger” and think it’s nonsense because we don’t reap fields to begin with. But thousands of years ago, this was a type of Tzedakah—people gave some of their food to strangers. Today, we can accept this rule as “always give some of your profits to those in greater need”. Upon thinking about a rule, you may discover its true meaning. On the other hand, there are rules in the Torah that were accepted thousands of years ago, but that doesn’t mean they should be accepted today. One example is the massive amount of sexism in the Torah. The artist Helene Ayalon once went through the Torah and highlighted all the sentences that were unfair to women. A vast percentage of the Torah was highlighted, including several entire pages. Men had much more power in ancient Judaism, and they still do today in some families and communities. These sexist rules should be changed—by no means is it “too late”. My portion itself includes an example of sexism—only the sons of Aaron were allowed to become priests. Today, many believe that women should be equal to men. The modern equivilant of priest are rabbis, and at Kolot Chayeinu, our rabbi is a woman. This would not be so if we had not thought of changing that rule. The Bar Kamtza story shows the consequences of following the Torah without thinking, and I believe that my verses contain the same danger. Sometimes, disobeying laws is the smarter option, because it allows us to make sure that Judaism is a fair religion. In other words, I believe it is fair to make changes to the laws of the Torah if they seem truly wrong to you. In Bar Kamtza, the rules should’ve been changed to save the Torah. Another example of breaking rules to benefit the Torah is when the Oral Torah was written down. The Oral Torah is the past down stories and laws of Jews interpreting the written Torah, and was not allowed to be written down. However, when the Temple was destroyed, the Oral Torah started to be forgotten, so Rabbi Yehuda passed a decree so the Oral Torah could be written down. He said that “There is a time to break Torah rules for Torah’s sake.” When I read Rabbi Yehuda’s quote, I found it to be identical to my point—that it is okay to disobey the Torah once in a while for the sake of the Torah. If, thousands of years ago, the rabbis had decided not to write down the oral Torah because that would go against a rule in the Torah, I would not be here today. The story of Bar Kamtza is another example of when to break rules. In the story of Bar Kamtza, if the Rabbis had simply accepted the rule but had known that it was not intended to apply in such a dire situation, the Temple might still be in Jerusalem. The story tells us what to do if something this major ever happens again. It also helps us in daily life—the story expresses how to follow a rule and even when it's time to break it. I think that the Torah, including my verses in Emor, should be understood, but not always followed. I think that saving someone’s heart and spirit, and, in the case of Bar Kamtza, saving someone’s life, should be first instead of following laws. Rules are there to help us, not to destroy us, and it is the same in the Torah. I think that as long as you know the rules—even if you don't always follow them—you are still involved in Judaism and honoring the Torah.

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