This week’s portion Emor, which means “to speak,” contains the following topics: First, the regulations governing the life and offerings of the cohanim; second, the Moedim, God’s Appointed Times in the Jewish calendar – Shabbat, Yom Teruah, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot; third, the ordinance regarding olive oil for lighting the menorah and the ingredients for the sanctuary bread; rules for a blasphemer of God’s Name is also described.

At first glance, this portion seems to have little application to our daily lives but since it addresses not only the daily life of the cohanim as well as ordinary people, let’s see how we can apply it to our lives today.

The cohen fulfilled certain roles, which did not necessarily make them “better human beings” or give them certain privileges over others, rather, their role was to serve God, and as they served God, they served others. To serve God and be presentable before Him, had to be done through their daily living. This is the first teaching that I would like to highlight in this portion: “God must be present in everything we do.” We must act by honoring and elevating His Divine Name in our daily lives, whether we are washing dishes, sweeping the floor, driving, taking the bus, shopping, or working. God has entrusted us to do this so that this world would be better.  At all times, our standard of life and behaviour must be like that of the cohen, knowing that we have a role, but that this role requires us to be aware that we are always before the Eternal. This, in turn, implies that we must have a high standard in how we dress, in our attitude toward service, our work ethic, our behavior and conduct, knowing our limitations of what we can and cannot do, and taking care of our interpersonal relationships as well as our diet.

We read what a cohen could and could not do. The first ordinance given to them was that they could not come into contact with dead people, except for their closest relatives such as a wife, parents, a son, or a virgin sister. There is a saying in Spanish: “Tell me who you are with, and I will tell you who you are.” In practical terms, a dead body can no longer contain life and who is our source of life? God. Tehillim 36:9 says, “For in You is the source of life.” So today many people are like the walking dead because they have willingly removed the source of life from within them. Yes, God is in their midst, but they are committing spiritual suicide and emulating death. Unlike the modern world that regards discrimination as a human right, from the beginning of creation, God does differentiate – He separated life and death, day and night, earth and water, that is, we shouldn’t fall into the progressive ideas that we should form ties with the spiritually dead. Mishlei 22:5 says, “Thorns and snares are in the path of the wicked; he who cares for his soul will turn away from them.”

So, what should we do with the dead? Here’s an example: Suppose a person, by being a drug dealer who emanates death, wants to get closer to God. Should we join him and taint ourselves or stay away from him? This is a gray area. Should we discriminate against him because he is truly a bad person? I would be very cautious because first I don’t know his intentions, and these types of people often look for a “symbol” of good luck, which could be the “symbol of religion” and not God. Usually, they are bloodthirsty and perverse, and they look to religion (no matter what it is) for a kind of “protection insurance,” thinking that their bad deeds need a little “whitewash” so that Divine Judgment doesn’t come upon them swiftly. Let him be inflated, thinking that a little generosity will cover his sins but what does the Torah tell us? “Do not defile yourself for one who is dead among his people,” (21:1). A different case is that he was evil but now totally changed his life. So, this simple example applies to us: let’s not defile ourselves because of a dead person; sooner or later, we too may become defiled.

But by what type of death could the cohen defile himself? Interestingly, the Torah gives us the order… wife, mother, father, son, daughter, brother and finally virgin sister. First, the Torah assumes that the cohen is a married man. Did you know that the fact that there are still marriages taking place in the world today is a global challenge? It is now common that young people prefer to replace children with pets, or the majority to have an “open relationship” without getting married or living together which translates into living in “socially accepted sex”. People are running away from commitment.

The Torah is teaching that to be engaged in this physical world it is necessary to be engaged in the spiritual world. So, if we are married, that’s a miracle, and the miracle must be appreciated and nurtured. Our wife (or husband) is our priority, even over our parents, children and siblings. If the order in the Torah is not prioritized, there will be chaos. How many marriages fail today because this is ignored? It goes both ways, the husband prioritizes his wife, and the rest of the family understands this. Here’s a simple example: my wife asks me to go to the supermarket and my mother asks me to go to the beauty salon at the same time, who is my priority? According to the Torah, it is my wife. She only has one husband while my mother could have another child or change her appointment. The right thing to do would be to ask my wife if we can drop my mother off before going to the supermarket, in other words, we decide together. There will be times when the decision is more complicated, but there needs to be an agreement between husband and wife; in this way, the Torah teaches wisdom.

After understanding what having a wife means in my family relationships, the Torah suggests that the cohen should enjoy a healthy and close relationship with his parents, that is his mother and father (in that order). It is sad today to see how many adults are growing old alone, forgotten by their children. Where is the honor towards parents today? This problem has increased due to migration as a consequence of globalization. Children at a productive age forget about their parents and do not maintain a close relationship with them; they don’t know if they ate, if they lack clothes or if they can meet their minimum daily expenses, if they have bathed or if they have spoken to someone during the day and not just with the four walls of their room. Let’s not forget that who we are today is the result of the effort and sacrifice of someone who nurtured and made us what we are today. We were clearly told at Mt. Sinai: “Honor your father and mother and fear your mother and father.

Next, the cohen’s priority focuses on his son and daughter. Priorities are strange here, and as men, we tend to prioritize girls who are more vulnerable than boys; it is as if caring for girls is something more innate and we think that boys can raise themselves. In my case, I have two boys and a girl, and I think that my daughter is more vulnerable and requires my protection, sometimes forgetting about my sons. She doesn’t say that I shouldn’t take care of her or nurture her, but she refers to my innate “priority” of her as forced awareness.

The Torah leaves the virgin brothers and sisters for last, that is, the sister who does not enjoy the protection of a husband. Once a sister gets married, she will enjoy being her husband’s priority. I have seen so many cases where siblings are brought into homes to live together, and this generates conflict. Don’t involve your siblings in your relationships; it is counterproductive.

Next, the priority is on the body. It deals with taking care of our body by not getting tattoos, improper trimming of hair and self-flagellation. Tattoos are the fashion today along with strange haircuts which some might say are unbecoming, in addition to “piercings” all over the body to the point that some have become deformed. The Torah teaches us: “Cohen, dare to be different.”

Emor also placed limits on the cohen’s relationships and choice of wife; for example, he had to marry someone pure, not just any woman. It gives us an example of reverse psychology – if my daughter becomes a prostitute, she should be executed. If I read this through the modern eyes of 2024, I would say: “Wow! The Torah is so evil! But in reality, what it is telling us is: “Cohen, raise your daughter in such a way that she does not seek prostitution as an option on how to live.” It is also counterculture since in Canaan prostitution was associated with religious service.

The standard for the Cohen Hagadol, the High Priest was much higher. From this, we learn that the more responsibility we have, the greater our dedication to serving the Eternal needs to be because we are closer to Him.

Next, no cohen with any disability could offer sacrifices; he could eat the offerings, however, he was not allowed to approach the Altar. This raises the question: if God created him with a disability or allowed the circumstances that led to his disability, wouldn’t this be a little discriminatory? Again, this simple reading needs to be filtered through a modern progressive mind. There are several reasons for this, in my opinion: First, carrying out the work of the offerings required a lot of physical strength; he needed to be like an athlete. For example, imagine the hard work required when a bull was to be offered. It was exhausting, and if we were to not spiritualize it so much, but rather see it in the daily practical life, God’s command was really to protect the life of the cohen, to preserve his integrity. Why subject him to a task that involved greater wear and tear on him than a normal person would have? For example, if I were lame, what would be the risk of my falling off the altar with an animal that I am about to offer? It will be greater than that of a normal person. If I were blind, what are the chances that I would burn myself in the fire on the altar or cut my hand because I could not see the edge of the knife? And we could mention many more things but is the Eternal telling us that He is preventing their role as cohanim? No! What the Eternal wants is that they would perform activities that are safe for them.

Finally, the portion of food that God has given you is for you. We read that the meat for the cohen’s consumption, the product of the offerings, was exclusively for him. They could not share it with lay people, however, they could share it with the most vulnerable of women (widowed daughters and slaves). I believe that what God has given us, we should take care of.

Although I could go on, I would just like to add that this portion also teaches us other things for our daily lives: We must present ourselves to God with the best offerings without defects (chapters 22-23), and we must honor time. Time is the most valuable thing God has given us, and if we do not know how to manage it, we are not honoring it. We must sanctify what we speak. Whoever blasphemes the Divine Name is similar to whoever murders a human being. For this reason, Yochanan, a talmid, a student of Yeshua said: “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). If we examine each aspect of this portion, we realize how practical the Torah is, which is why it is a source of life as Mishlei says. 13:14, “The Torah of the wise is a fountain of life.” You might say that this only applies to the families of the cohanim, however, God said that we were kings and cohanim in Shemot 19:6, so, yes, this applies to us too. My prayer this Shabbat is that we put the Torah into practice in our daily lives so that we can be a source of life and light in our environment.

Shabbat Shalom

Mauricio Quintero