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Emor: Building Resilient Faith

Perusing the many Mitzvos in this week’s Parsha, one can’t help but notice the enigmatic and almost contradictory nature of many of the laws. The Parsha begins with God’s instructions to the Kohanim prohibiting their attendance at the funerals of loved ones, a Mitzvah that is quite difficult to wrap our heads around. It then continues on to encourage ritual slaughter but forbid injuring or killing animals otherwise (24:18), prohibits us from eating bread over Pesach but enjoins us to bring loaves of bread to accompany the Omer offering, commands us to afflict ourselves on one holiday and on the next to eat and rejoice and wave palm fronds in the air accompanied by a fruit. In case we aren’t already scratching our heads in confusion, the Parsha culminates in the strange story of the Mekallel, where within the span of seven verses, God both commands the entire Jewish nation to stone – and kill – the blasphemer (24:14), and then warns that any person who “strikes down” or “strikes” another person will be put to death (24:17, 21).

How could a grandson not attend his grandparents’ funeral? How can we be commanded to stone a fellow Jew, and then barely a moment later be commanded not to kill or strike another person?

The beauty of Judaism and the Jewish people is that our faith and dedication to God and His Torah often comes at the cost of reason, logic, or clear-cut understanding. Faith is thus called because it is belief independent of logic or illogic; it is about the recognition that we do as we are told not out of understanding, but from the joy, love, and awe of being part of something greater than ourselves.

This idea is difficult enough to digest ourselves; how can we teach our children and students to internalize this kind of trust in God and dedication to His (sometimes confusing) commandments?

The answer to this crucial question lies in the very first verse of the Parsha itself. God says to Moshe, “Say to the Kohanim the sons of Aharon, and say to them…” (VaYikra 21:1). Rashi immediately notes the repetitive quality of this phrase and wonders why God doubles the use of the root word “amar.” To avoid redundancy, the verse need only say, “Say to the Kohanim….” Rashi explains that this double language cautions the older Kohanim regarding the younger ones, and emphasizes the importance of being mechanech our children.

Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen explains according to Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l that this refers to the way one must teach others - one’s children, students, or peers who lack the necessary knowledge - about the Torah and Mitzvos. It is one thing to say that these are the laws, to tell them over, to explain them, to elucidate or instruct. The second use of the term “v’amarta,” refers not only to what we say, but to what we do that illustrates and exemplifies what we are saying. There are different words used to describe speech in the Torah. Rashi typically notes that “dibur,” as in “Va’Yidaber,” is a harsher form of speech, while “amirah,” as in “emor” and “v’amarta” is a softer form of speech. Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that this is a warning to the Kohanim and to us that not only must we tell our children and students about the Torah, but the way in which we live should communicate the beauty and joy of living a Torah lifestyle, in a soft, gentle, and joyful manner.

In 2002, Marjorie Gunnoe and Kristin Moore published a powerful study of 1,143 children whom they followed over the course of their childhood and adolescent years, from ages 7 to 22. Gunnoe and Moore studied these children to try to identify what factors most predicted child and adolescent religiosity (i.e., religious beliefs and practices). Their study showed that having religious role models in childhood and adolescence was the most significant predictor of religious faith and observance in youth. It is not one’s circumstances, one’s cognitive abilities, or the force with which a lesson is taught or reiterated; it is how we communicate and role model our faith that most influences others to stand strong in theirs, even in the face of confusion.

The double use of “Emor” and “V’amarta” is not just a random piece of advice; it is actually essential to Jewish life, most especially with regard to the enigmatic and difficult to digest laws that dictate much of our daily lives, such as those in this week’s Torah portion. God understood that the Kohanim and the Jewish people as a whole might have difficulty understanding and accepting the laws He was about to give over, and therefore recognized the need for this double Lashon, the importance of both stating the laws as well as embodying the joy of living a life of faith, even in the absence of total understanding.

What we say to others about Judaism is only one form of conveying what we feel and why we do what we do. Modeling the joy that Torah brings us, communicating through our actions, our tone of voice, that we love what we do, is as – if not more – powerful. When we study the Mitzvos in this and other Parshios, let us remember that in role modeling a love for Torah and a joy in being a Jew, we foster the kind of faith that is resilient to the criticism and confusion that surround us.

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