The portion of Emor opens with a strange commandment to the kohanim-priests of Israel: “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Say to the priests children of Aaron, and tell them: “Do not defile yourselves by contact with the dead of the nation.”’” (Leviticus 21:1). The Bible then lists the exceptions to this rule. A Kohen may defile himself only for the burial of his wife, his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, his brother and his unmarried sister. Otherwise our Priest-teachers are forbidden contact with the dead.
In contrast, one of the most important functions of the Christians clergy is administering “last rites,” and properly burying the dead. Clearly the Torah is teaching that Judaism is not chiefly concerned with death and the hereafter; rather, it is principally engaged with life in the here-and-now. Our major religious imperative is not how to ease the transition from this world to the next, but how to improve and repair our own society. But there seems to be an inconsistency; our very same portion goes on to command (as quoted above): “You shall not desecrate the name of My holiness; I shall be sanctified in the midst of the children of Israel” (Lev. 22:32). And herein lies the mitzvah of “Kiddush HaShem,” explain our Talmudic Sages, the necessity of sacrificing one’s life—sanctifying the name of God—for the sake of the commandments of the Bible. Jews must give up their lives rather than transgress any of the three major prohibitions of murder, sexual immorality or adultery; and, in times of persecution, Jews must die rather than publicly transgress even the simplest or most “minor” of Jewish laws, even a Jewish custom involving our shoelaces (B.T. Sanhedrin 74a,b). Our Talmudic Sages insist, however, that when Jews are not being persecuted, it is forbidden for Jews to forfeit their lives in order not to desecrate Shabbat, for example, if an individual feels chest pains Shabbat morning, he must be driven to the nearest hospital! It is better that he desecrate one Shabbat and remain alive to keep many Shabbatot.
But then, if life is so precious, why command martyrdom at all? And the sad truth is that our history is tear stained and blood soaked with many sacred martyrs who gave up their lives in sanctification of the Divine Name, during the Spanish Inquisition, to cite but one example, in the late 15th and early 16th Century, when Jews were forced to kiss the cross of crucifixion or die!
The answer lies in the very juxtaposition of the law of priestly defilement emphasizing the importance of life, and the law of martyrdom enjoining death, within our same Biblical portion. Yes, preservation of life is crucial and this world is the focus of the Jewish concern—but not life merely for the sake of existing. Living, and not merely existing, means devoting one’s life to ideals and values that are more important than any individual life. We participate in eternity by dedicating our lives to the eternal values that will eventually repair the world and establish a more perfect society – in this world. As the late Martin Luther King said it. A person whose life is not dedicated to values for which he would give up his life is not worthy of living!
Hence we must value and elevate life, but always within the perspective of those principles which are greater than our redemption. Yes, “live by these [My laws],” but live the kind of life which will teach the highest purposes of life!
But how can we justify martyrdom, even if only during periods of persecution, for the sake of a Jewish custom regarding our shoelaces? What can there possibly be about a shoelace which strikes at the heart and essence of our Jewish mission? The Talmudic Commentaries of the French and German Sages of the 11th and 12th centuries, when many Jews were martyred by the Crusaders, suggest that the general accepted clothing etiquette in Rome and its numerous colonies during the second century of the Common Era was to wear white shoelaces. Jews, however, wore black shoelaces, as a memorial to the loss of our Holy Temple, Holy City of Peace, Jerusalem. and our Jewish national sovereignty. When Gentiles in times of persecution attempted to force Jews to wear white shoelaces—and thereby force the Jewish community to cease mourning for the loss of our national homeland—the Jew must respond with martyrdom (B.T. Sanhedrin 74b, Tosafot ad loc.).
My revered teacher Rav Joseph B. Solovetchik added a crucial point: There are many Jewish laws, decrees and customs which have developed from biblical times to the present, which Jews themselves do not always realize are truly vital for our national and religious preservation. Our Gentile enemies, however’ always do, because they—wishing to persecute and destroy us—strike at the jugular. Hence whatever they insist that we abandon, we must maintain even at the price of our lives! From this perspective, it becomes easier to understand why anti-Semitism expresses itself in unfair attacks on the free and democratic State of Israel, condemning us while championing the cause of our terrorist enemies; we must focus on how crucial and vital the State of Israel is for Jewish survival today.
The memorials of Holocaust Remembrance Day and Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars quickly followed by Independence Day and Jerusalem Day must remind us that Israel is not merely a destination but is our destiny. Israel is not only the place of our survival, but it is the heart of our mission for world salvation, from whence the word of God—a God of life, love and peace—will spread to all of humanity.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Chancellor Ohr Torah Stone
Chief Rabbi – Efrat Israel