Dec 09 2012

OU bris book

Published by at 8:48 pm under Uncategorized

Parshat Emor -Holiness

Published in OU/Artscroll book

Entering the Covenant

In a world dominated by the pursuit of physical pleasure and material satisfaction, there has emerged, over time, a new school of thought. From the widespread study of Kabbalah, to the followers of the Dali Lama, many in our society have become preoccupied with the quest for spirituality. In Judaism, the Torah places great emphasis on the ideal of spirituality and the definition of holiness. Our religion however, has a unique and decidedly different view of this quality, than one might at first imagine.

The Torah tells us in Parshat Emor, that the Kohen is prohibited from defiling himself by coming into contact with a dead body. Of all the things that come to mind, isn’t it strange that the Torah’s definition of spiritual purity is contingent upon life and death? Is this the basis on which we judge our closeness to God? No mention of prayer or Torah study? Of sacrifices or fasting? How are we to understand the Torah’s directive to the Kohen? What is it about the Kohen that requires him to be kept away from the dead? And if there is a concept of Tumat Hamet, why aren’t the rest of the Jewish people given this Mitzvah? Weren’t we all commanded in the previous Parsha to be a holy nation?

It is not coincidental that the Jewish view of purity and contamination is a widely misunderstood phenomenon. Indeed, as many outreach professionals will attest to, ours is a system that is often maligned. The word impure conjures up images of filth and dirt, and is therefore an area that needs a great deal of explanation. Yet, isn’t it interesting, that while we ponder the meanings of these terms, we never stop to question the practice of washing our hands upon leaving the cemetery? We know that washing is for the purpose of purity, but what is impure about a dead body?  Clearly, an explanation is in order.

The commentaries explain that there is a unique relationship that exists between the physicality of the body and spirituality of the soul. Each has particular needs that have to be satisfied. What is unique about Jews, however, is that we believe that physical and spiritual pleasure need not be a contradiction. Our mission is to build a relationship with God through the physical trappings of this world. This, to many, is a foreign concept. In other faiths, physical pleasure is seen as a weakness of the flesh, and is eliminated as a means of seeking out the holy. One who wishes to achieve the ultimate in  holiness, is encouraged to remain celibate, to abstain from earthly pleasures.

But Jews do not subscribe to this philosophy of asceticism. Our job is to live a physical existence, and to inject holiness into our everyday lives. Hearty Shabbat meals, a restful vacation, a long run in the park, all of these are avenues through which we can achieve higher levels of spirituality. The key to this mission is to channel our actions toward the service of Hashem. As we say in the prayer, “Anu ratzim v’heim ratzim,” we run as does the rest of the world, but only our efforts are in pursuit of eternity.

With this explanation in mind, we can now address the problem at hand. A body is only considered to be holy, so long as it houses the soul that drives it. As the soul departs, so does the spirituality that accompanies it. What is left is the total physical nature of the body. This absence of spirituality is known as Tumah. The Kohen, as Rav Moshe Feinstein Zt’l, explains, was the epitome of holiness. His full time job was the service of Hashem, and therefore he could not subject himself to defilement by the corporeal body. Ordinary man, who is involved in the more mundane matters of life, has the obligation of tending to the dead.
The opportunity to direct one’s actions toward the service of Heaven is what makes our heritage so meaningful. To have purpose in life is a basic, yet often unmet, need of human existence. Without it, life is reduced to a series of trivial and inconsequential events, which span the course of merely a few decades. Man works and struggles; in a short time it is over, and all he is left with is physical and transient. But if we realize that by directing our efforts we can achieve immortality, the effects on our behavior will be remarkable. Such an attitude will make us better spouses, better parents, and ultimately, better servants of the Almighty.

The birth of a child, aside from being a momentous occasion, brings with it an awesome amount of responsibility. The decisions we make as parents today, are ones that will shape the course of generations to come. Our job is to ensure that the lives of our offspring are infused with direction and meaning. A Bris is the event in which we begin to give life its definition. It is the distinction we give to the most carnal part of the body, which elevates it to the realm of the spiritual.

My dear parents, you have spent your entire lives preparing for this moment. Your devotion and dedication toward the Ribono Shel Olam are about to undergo a huge transition. For you no longer function as individuals, but as the Matriarch and Patriarch of future generations. May you continue to live your lives with purpose and may your new son carry on your legacy and be a great source of pride and nachas to you and your entire family. Mazel Tov!