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Emor Sermon

This week’s Torah portion contains details about the priests.  There were extra requirements to serve as a priest.  It was not just a matter of birth.  An example: “The Lord spoke further to Moses: Speak to Aaron and say: No man of your offspring throughout the ages who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the food of his God.  No one at all who has a defect shall be qualified: no man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long; no man who has a broken leg or a broken arm; or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or who has a growth in his eye…” (Leviticus 21:16-20)

This appears objectionable.  Of course we welcome the disabled to the bima.  I believe all, for example, should have a bar mitzvah.  Jewish law of course suggests that only someone who has the requisite understanding can recite the prayers or read from the Torah.  Therefore someone who is mentally incapacitated is prevented from these rituals.  But in our congregation we make sure that every child has this opportunity.  I believe that even an autistic child should have a bar/bat mitzvah.  This bima is open to all.

On the surface I therefore disagree with the Torah’s strictures.  Why should the priest have such stringent requirements? No touching the dead, marrying a divorced woman, no shaving in addition to the above.  The list goes on and occupies two chapters.

Then again, if we look not at the specifics of the list and instead at the principle, perhaps we can uncover meaning for ourselves.  We should expect more from our leaders.  Our leaders should live according to more stringent standards.  Since I focused on surgeons in my email let’s look at that again.  While we should not care if they shave their beards, we should care if we ran into them drinking and partying the night before our mother’s surgery.  Those who have extra responsibilities must live according to more exacting standards.  That is the point of the Torah’s restrictions.  For the ancients the priest was as important to a person’s and the world’s health as a surgeon is in our own age.  Extra responsibilities means extra standards.  That is the message in a nutshell.

This is why I do expect more from our politicians.  I expect them to live by higher standards.  While I am not surprised when powerful people go astray—we need only think of the Edwards trial or a past president’s indiscretions to illustrate this point. Or we can look at King David’s sinful behavior for a biblical example.  The Bible’s disappointment in David should mirror our own.  Just because we are not surprised by such behavior does not mean that it is permissible.  More responsibility means more standards.  That is the message.

It is why I also expect more of my country than of other countries.  The mission of America is not just to protect us, its citizenry, but also to rescue those in distress; we are to help the world.  Later we will look at Elie Wiesel’s speech about this mission.  In his eyes the lesson of the Holocaust is that we must reach out to those who are suffering; we cannot, we must not remain indifferent.

This is also why even though I am bothered when others, most especially our newspapers’ op-ed columnists, hold Israel to a different standard than every other country in the world, I remind myself that Israel should be held to a different standard.  If it sees itself as a leader of the Jewish people, as representative of the Jewish people worldwide, then it has responsibilities that transcend its protection of its citizens.  Both Israel and America argue that their meaning extends beyond their borders.  If we see ourselves as having more expansive responsibilities then we must live by more demanding standards.

That is the message of these lists of strictures regarding the priests.  But it is not just about our country, or about our leaders, or even our doctors.  It is actually about all of us.  When God first spoke to the Israelites at Sinai God said that the entire people must be a kingdom of priests.  That means that everyone must live by these more exacting standards.

You can object to the specifics of the Torah.  And we might as well have different specifics to add.  But I hope we will not object to the overriding message.  Every single one of us must live by higher standards.  We must live by more exacting strictures.
Our everyday moral choices really do matter.

We never know who might be watching—and who might be following us.  Each and every day every one of us is a leader.  We never know if our lives might depend on it.  We never know—the world could very well depend on us.  Everything could really depend on each of us living by these exacting standards.

That is this week’s message.  Let’s step up and not shy away from these exacting standards. Let’s do the more demanding.  Let’s live by the most stringent ideals.