Parashat Emor: Teach Your Children Well

Commentary on Parashat Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23

Parashat Emor focuses on the laws of the priesthood, sacred donations to the Temple and the calendar of sacred festivals. Each of these topics elucidates a different element of holiness — of people, places and time. 

At the beginning of the Torah portion, we are told that priests are not to defile themselves by coming into contact with dead bodies (with the exception of their immediate relatives). The priests are also restricted in who they can marry and must meet certain physical requirements. For the ancient Israelites, the priests served as conduits between the people and God and were thus held to a higher standard of purity. And it is not just the priests themselves, but their children as well.

The word Emor literally means “say” and in the opening verse of the portion, a version of that word is repeated three times: “God said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin.” 

Why might this word be repeated so many times? Many commentators agree that its purpose is to indicate that it’s not enough for the priests themselves to avoid defilement, but they must teach their children to do so as well. 

Nachmanides, the 13th-century Catalan commentator, goes even further, saying that not only must the children be taught the laws, but they must be actively prevented from defiling themselves: “[The repetition of the verb] is to warn the adults about the children … the purpose of the many warnings being [to teach] that all sons of Aaron are to be guarded from defilement, even the young ones.”

Teaching children about the priestly laws, and more so ensuring that they observe them, requires exposing children to the reality of death. In our day, the impulse is often to do quite the opposite — to shield children from this uncomfortable but inevitable part of life. And yet, the Torah here instructs us to do the opposite. 

In part, this is a product of the reluctance of adults to talk about death. When adults are afraid to talk about it or express emotions of grief and loss, children also take on those qualities. But when we are able to talk about loss, children learn to do so as well. 

Experts agree that when talking about death, speaking factually is important. Using euphemisms like “passed away” or “sorry for your loss” can be confusing to children. Perhaps this Torah portion’s emphasis on speaking is a reminder not only to avoid shying away from difficult topics, but from speaking straightforwardly when we do. What we say matters. And it is not just what we say in words, but what we say with our actions. When we allow our children to be part of Jewish mourning rituals like lighting candles and covering mirrors in the home, we provide them with a structure to help navigate the uncharted territory of grief. 

As hard as it may be, we can learn from Parashat Emor how important it is that we speak of death to our children. While each of us will choose to express grief in our own ways, let us remember that our children are watching and learning. 

This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Reading Torah Through Grief newsletter on May 5, 2023. To sign up to receive this newsletter each week in your inbox, click here.

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