Parashat Emor: The spiritual world that survived

On this day, we celebrate the survival of the Jewish people’s spiritual world; the survival of our spiritual greats, the teachers of Torah.

A woman reading a book in a field (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
A woman reading a book in a field
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, deals with many commandments, the lion’s share of which relates to halachot (Jewish laws) of the kohanim who served God in the Temple.
One of these mitzvot is the mitzva of truma, a certain percentage of the field’s yield given to the kohanim. The parasha details under what condition the kohen can eat from the truma and when this is forbidden; who of the kohen’s family can eat from the truma and who cannot, and other issues connected to this commandment.
The mitzva of truma, though obligatory for every farmer in the Land of Israel, is to a large extent a voluntary commandment, because the Torah does not determine the percentage of the yield that the farmer must give the kohen. Therefore, even one sheaf can be the truma from an entire field. Any addition to this single sheaf is given from the goodness of the farmer’s heart, as he recognizes the significance of this mitzva.
Why would a farmer want to give truma to a kohen? We can understand this if we analyze the people of Israel’s original social structure, as it is described in the Torah.
In the past, the nation was divided into tribes, with each tribe generally working in a specific sphere of the nation’s life. One tribe dealt with commerce, another with politics and governance, and yet another might have an expertise in wines.
But we must be clear. This was not a caste system or an extremely hierarchical society. The members of a tribe were not obligated to work in that tribe’s field of expertise.
It was not a person’s fate from the day of his birth.
But each tribe had an area – some important part of the life of the entire nation – that became its specialty.
Only one tribe was the exception: the tribe of Levi.
This tribe, some of whose members served as kohanim in the Temple, did not receive parcels of land in the Land of Israel as the other tribes did. Levi was the tribe in charge of leading the nation spiritually. Levites worked in the Temple and at teaching the entire nation Torah. Therefore, they did not live in one particular area of the land, but were scattered in small towns all over the land, to allow for easier access to their spiritual roles.
The farmer who works his field and sees blessing in his yield might see the field as merely an economic issue disconnected from the spiritual and ideological world. But the Torah instructs him to put the spiritual world “into” his field. How?
By setting aside a certain percentage of the yield and giving it to the spiritual tribe, the one busy teaching Torah. In this way, the farmer becomes a partner in the Levites’ spiritual work and that of the kohanim. This adds value and holiness to the farmer’s work.
This Saturday night and Sunday, the Jewish people will be celebrating Lag Ba’omer. It is an ancient custom to mark the 33rd day of the Omer as a day of joy and of visiting the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai in Meron in the Upper Galilee. As this custom became more popular, the original reason for it became less known.
What happened on this day and what’s the connection with Bar Yohai? Rabbi Hayyim Vital (Safed, 1542-1620) was one of the students of the great Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (known as the “Ari”). He cited the reason for this custom in his kabbalistic work Sha’ar Hakavanot (Gate of Intentions), a reason that relates to the mitzva of truma.
The Talmud tells us about Rabbi Akiva, the greatest of the Sages in the first and second centuries, who had thousands of students. Over a short period of time, a terrible tragedy struck the nation: all of Akiva’s students died within a few weeks. The Talmud says their deaths came as punishment for “not being respectful to one another.” Despite being knowledgeable about Torah, their interpersonal relationships left much to be desired.
The influence of this event on Jewish society is described in the Talmud with one short and powerful sentence. “The world was desolate.” In a short time, the nation’s spiritual leadership all but disappeared.
Desolation, emptiness and a deep void were felt in the world. But Akiva did not despair. He promoted five students, the most important of whom was Bar Yohai, and these five students continued the tradition of studying Torah and teaching it to the nation. They were the ones who made the desolation bloom.
Akiva’s thousands of students died between Passover and Lag Ba’omer. On Lag Ba’omer, therefore, the tradition of transmitting Torah from generation to generation was renewed by the teacher, Akiva, and his student, Bar Yohai. This, says Vital, is the reason to celebrate on Lag Ba’omer.
On this day, we celebrate the survival of the Jewish people’s spiritual world; the survival of our spiritual greats, the teachers of Torah; the fact that ultimately the world did not remain spiritually desolate – it has Torah, it has values of truth, and it has values of justice and peace.
■ The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.