May 5 2011

Parshat Emor

Rabbi Joel Zeff

This week’s Torah reading deals extensively with various aspects of the functioning of the institution of the Tabernacle and of what would become the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. One of the most interesting of these details is the disqualification of priests who have certain physical abnormalities. It is obvious that these “defects” are not the fault of these cohanim . Neither are those individuals relegated to an inferior class of humanity in any way. The disqualification is exclusively with regards to the full functioning as a cohen in the Holy Temple. Why?

The Torah is quite explicit with regards to the purpose of the Holy Temple and its antecedent, the Tabernacle-  “make for me a Holy Temple so that I might dwell among them.” (Exodus 25:8) The function of the Temple is to create a context for the in-dwelling of the Divine Presence, a sacred space in which we can feel the majesty of God’s presence in the world. There can be no doubt that aesthetics play a major role in the arousal of the sense of awe which the Torah desires we experience in the “House of God.” The physical appearance of the cohanim is one component which contributes to producing the desired aesthetic-psychological-spiritual effect.

Consistent with the above is the Torah’s demand that we engage in only the most decorous behavior in the Temple. The verse, “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place” (Leviticus 19:29) is explained by the Oral Law to forbid from the Temple precincts, among other things, excessive levity, unkempt dress and hygiene, spitting, turning one’s back to the Holy of Holies, and non-mitzva related activities.

When the prophet Ezekiel expressed despair over the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem God offered comfort by responding that even in post-exilic  times He will sanction the creation of sacred space,  “although I have removed them far off among the nations… yet I will be for them a miniature Temple in the lands to which they have come.” (Ezekiel 11:16) The Talmud explains that this verse is referring to synagogues and study halls.

For this reason many of the same demands for uplifting aesthetics and proper decorum apply to our syngagogues.  Indeed, the momentous and universally accepted law code, Shulchan Aruch, devotes several chapters to these standards.

With the help of God and the blood, sweat, and not a few tears of many devoted people, many Jewish communities have built a “miniature Temple” worthy of the term.  The verse “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place” compels us to be ever vigilant to protect and improve the sanctity of our sanctuary.

It is obviously not enough for the furniture to fulfill the mitzvah of “you shall be in awe of my Holy Place.” We who fill this sacred place must demand of ourselves to be on the highest standards of behavior within the synagogue, if not at all times! Let us make sure that our synagogues become known as “the shul in which the worshipers worship,”  and save the shmuzing for the Kiddush.