02 May 2014

Emor 5774: Do As I Say Not As They Do

Emor 5774: Do As I Say Not As They Do
Our environment affects us profoundly. We are social animals who are strongly influenced by the actions and behaviors of those around us. Instinctively, we tend to imitate what we see people do, and because it is instinctual, we don’t easily detect the mimicry that creeps into our habits. On an evolutionary level, this is adaptive. By following the pack, we easily blend in and enjoy the protection of the group, while those who stand out are more vulnerable. Our propensity for copying also makes modeling behavior, rather than simply instructing, the best tactic for teaching.

Yet, because we are so susceptible to learning from communal actions, we are also highly vulnerable to doing so when the actions are not desirable. Perashat Emor teaches us that when this is the case, special attention is required. The parasha opens with the prohibition for a kohen to come into contact with a dead body, but it uses a peculiar redundancy of language.

And G-d said to Moshe: ‘Tell the Kohanim, the sons of Aharon, you tell to them, for a (dead-)person among his people, one is not to make oneself spiritually impure… (21:1)

Tell…Tell them – This [redundancy signals] that the elders should caution the youth. (Yebamot, 114a)[1]

It is a universal ideal that elders should instruct the youth, but this unique situation in Emor provides a prime setting to teach the ideal. When a person dies, it is natural for the majority of the people to come in contact with the body, closely escort the body, or to sit in the same room as the body. All such behaviors are off limits to a kohen. For the young and inquisitive kohen who naturally looks to learn about life by watching what the people do, such a setting becomes confusing and challenging. Here, when everyone else is doing otherwise, it is the responsibility of the adult kohanim to tell the young ones that they cannot do what they see the people do. It is permitted for others, but it is not for them.

This is perhaps the most difficult type of lesson to teach our children. Be different, because you are different. Do not simply follow what you see, follow what you learn and know. Actions often speak louder than words, but words are not thereby invalidated. As human beings we can give in to the urge of conformity, and there are certainly instances, as with community building for example, that this is an important aspect of human behavior. There are times, though, that our thinking and speaking must master deeds. When a society that we connect with behaves in a way that runs counter to how we would like our children to behave, we are faced with a formidable challenge that will not resolve itself. The double “tell them” at the beginning of the parasha is to emphasize the need to be proactive and to speak to young people about the proper actions to embrace when they are observing otherwise in public life.

The task of parenting is ever-present. We naturally grasp at respite when it so much as hints at relieving us from the formidable job. It is certainly understandable, the stamina and energy required in good parenting ranks at top human levels. We, therefore, hope that the school, the synagogue, the neighborhood, the community, or the society will help raise our children. And while it may be true that help can be had from some or all of these sources, it still stands that the single most influential teachers in any child’s life are the parents. Emor teaches us to speak to our children when social cues may be misleading. It encourages us to be proactive, and in doing so, show them that we notice and care about what they do. The power of that attention aimed at the heart of a child runs far deeper than we imagine.

Shabbat Shalom to you all,
Rabbi Joseph Dweck

[1] See also Rashi, 21:1, s.v. Emor.


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