Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Emor 5777

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Talmud Torah

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5775

With all due respect to the Kohanim, whenever we encounter the psukim detailing the responsibilities and dress of the Kohen, the marital or corpse contact restrictions, I think that we read them as a vestige of a time long ago. Their primary job was in the temple and today they are simply a reminder of a distant past, an echo of their former glory.

Although that is partially true, there is another element of the kehuna which is very much relevant today, even if we don’t associate it with our kohanim, namely, the teaching and studying of Torah.

Yechezkel in today’s haftarah details the responsibilities of the kohen. Much of it is very similar to the description in today’s parsha. But nestled gently in between we find:

יחזקאל פרק מד

כג) וְאֶת־עַמִּ֣י יוֹר֔וּ בֵּ֥ין קֹ֖דֶשׁ לְחֹ֑ל וּבֵין־טָמֵ֥א לְטָה֖וֹר יוֹדִעֻֽם

כד) וְעַל־רִ֗יב הֵ֚מָּה יַעַמְד֣וּ לשפט לְמִשְׁפָּ֔ט בְּמִשְׁפָּטַ֖י ושפטהו יִשְׁפְּט֑וּהוּ וְאֶת־תּוֹרֹתַ֤י וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתַי֙ בְּכָל־מוֹעֲדַ֣י יִשְׁמֹ֔רוּ וְאֶת־שַׁבְּתוֹתַ֖י יְקַדֵּֽשׁוּ

23. And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean.

  1. (K) And in a controversy they act as judges; and they shall judge it according to my judgments; and they shall keep my laws and my statutes in all my appointed times; and they shall sanctify my sabbaths.

We find a similar sentiment in the Torah although no one is listening as we read it on Simchat Torah in the Berachot that Moshe gives to the tribes at the end of his life and the Torah.

דברים פרק לג

י) יוֹר֤וּ מִשְׁפָּטֶ֙יךָ֙ לְיַעֲקֹ֔ב וְתוֹרָתְךָ֖ לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יָשִׂ֤ימוּ קְטוֹרָה֙ בְּאַפֶּ֔ךָ וְכָלִ֖יל עַֽל־מִזְבְּחֶֽךָ

10. They shall teach Jacob your judgments, and Israel your Torah; they shall put incense before you, and whole burnt sacrifice upon your altar.

While one could theoretically distinguish between these two sources, seeing Yechezkel as teaching practical torah and Moshe implying more, possibly a focus on study for study’s sake, I think that both are correct. We must learn to know what to do but there is another reason to learn Torah.

That message I believe is conveyed by the fact that it is the Kohen’s role, and based on the order of the verse in the Torah, maybe the kohen’s primary role to teach torah.

Why must it be the Kohen? Why not assign that role to another tribe?

I think that the Kohen as torah teacher conveys two important messages:

  • Just as sacrifice in the temple is a manner of serving God, so too Torah learning is a manner of serving God.
  • Just as one could feel God’s presence in the temple, so too one can glimpse or sense God’s presence through Torah learning.

Rav Aaron Lichtenstein ZT”L wrote in an essay entitled “the nature and value of Torah study”

First, study provides knowledge requisite to halakhic living, even as it deepens halakhic commitment.  Second, since Talmud Torah enables a person, within limits, to cleave unto God, it has moral, passional, and pietistic repercussions.

I am not sure that many of us will ever reach that level, but we must as individuals and as a modern orthodox community work on our commitment to Torah study and our appreciation of the critical nature of Torah study in our avodat hashem.

I have had that thought many times in the last few weeks.  Two weeks ago I spoke about the deaths of Rabbi Akiva’s students within the context of mourning during the omer and the need to treat people with respect. What kind of Jew are you if you study but are not respectful and kind.

In our communities we must also ask- what kind of Jew are you if you are kind and respectful but don’t study Torah?

The line that haunts me the most came from the pirkei avot shiur a week and a half ago. The mishna raised the question of the proper balance between work and learning Torah.

The primary source for that discussion is a Gemara in Berachot 35b.

Rabbi Yishmael says we must balance the verse in Shema that says – “and you will bring in your crops” and the verse in Joshua extolling Torah learning. You need both!

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai counters – If a man ploughs in the ploughing season, and sows in the sowing season, and reaps in the reaping season, and threshes in the threshing season, and winnows in the season of wind, what is to become of the Torah?    תורה מה תהא עליה

The Gemara concludes that many tried to emulate Rabbi Yishmael and were successful. Many tried to emulate Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and they were not.

We emulate Rabbi Yishmael – we must go to work and bring in the crops!

But do we really, we go to work but do we find time to learn as well, do we really strive to find a balance between learning and work?

Finally, even though the Gemara seems to conclude that for the overwhelming majority “balance”  is the right approach, we must always be sensitive to the concern of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai – תורה מה תהא עליה – ןf all we do is work, what will become of Torah study?!