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Spiritual Purity and Holiness

Parshat Emor

Leviticus 21:1-24:23

The Torah portion for the week is Emor. This Torah portion continues instruction to the priesthood that is the theme of most of Leviticus. The priesthood is holy to God. In fact, Aaron wears a crown with those very words engraved upon them. The priesthood had special obligations to maintain their spiritual purity. Holiness and spiritual purity belonged to the Divine realm and therefore they could not carry out their duties in a state of spiritual impurity. The relationship of the Israelite nation and God depended on the Kohen’s ritual status because the offerings would not be acceptable if they were made by the Kohen in a status of impurity.  The offering would be seen as improper.  And we saw what happened to Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu when they brought an improper offering on the altar.  They died.

This state of purity was achieved by immersion in the mikvah, the ritual bath. The priesthood had to be scrupulous in maintaining its spiritual purity. The things that contaminated or defiled this spiritual status included coming into contact with a dead body, bodily emissions like semen and blood including menstruating women.

Our portion, Emor begins with specific instructions for priests concerning a death in their family.  Coming in contact with death always brought spiritual impurity.  And so the portion outlines for the priest whom they may set aside their holy priestly duties and become spiritually impure for.  A priest may contaminate his special state of purity for his immediate family: mother, father, son daughter brother, unmarried sister. But not his in laws or sister that married and is now a part of another household.  This might seem unkind and even cruel.  The priest could not defile his special ritual status except for these intimate family members. A Kohen could not even go to bury a friend because being in a cemetery brings ritual impurity. Any contact or near contact with death does so.

The Torah could have forbidden priests any contact with the dead. But it recognizes that Kohanim are human beings and the intimate family relationships require a duty to honor the dead within that family circle.  The rabbis included the priest’s wife in this circle. But beyond those blood relationships a priest had a higher duty to maintain his spiritual cleanliness. He had to keep his soul open to the holy and the divine.

The special and unique obligations of the priesthood were with them all the time and helped to make the priest a bridge between the divine realm and the human, earthly realm.  Today we have no priests but the call to holiness is real.  How can we bring the holy into our lives? How can we bring spiritual purity into everyday living?  This is not an easy task.  Especially when we are surrounded by the tawdry and crass realities of 21st century life? Beverly Hills Housewives might be a hit on TV but it hardly elevates the soul.

Our souls need to be uplifted and cleansed from the battering of contemporary life.  Prayer and meditation help to ease our spirits. This is a way we purify ourselves to face the cacophony of modernity. So say a prayer. Meditate for a moment. Recite the Shema. Sing a Jewish song. And uplift and cleanse your spirit and bring the heavenly realm down to earth for just a while.