Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Levitivus 10-16: A Model for Religious Leadership

The past couple of weeks have particularly difficult as far as reading the weekly Torah portion is concerned. The chapters in Leviticus that form the weekly portions have concentrated primarily on in-depth instructions for the Cohen to deal with blemishes that might appear on a person's skin or on their home. The Cohen had the authority to both quarantine a person who had these markings (described in great detail), and to have the house with these markings destroyed.

We don't know much about these markings, other than their verbal descriptions. The Torah was transmitted through the generations as a text only, with no accompanying images!

So I'll start my comment on these chapters by quoting Rabbi Lewis Barth, who shares with his readers a Midrash about the importance of re-interpreting the Torah in each generation:

In a comment on the importance of Torah, "For this is not a trifling [lit., ‘empty'] thing for you"(Deuteronomy 32:47), Rabbi Akiva (or Rabbi Yishmael) said, "If the Torah is an empty thing, it is because of you, because you don't know how to expound it"

Accordingly, the Sages in the Talmud interpreted the blemishes described in the text as signs from G-d that a person had spoken about others in an immoral manner. They were acutely aware that "Lashon Harah" (evil speech) was a societal problem in Israel, and their approach also had sound textual support from other examples such as Miriam leprosy, which was connected to her speech.

However, I believe their is also another lesson to be drawn from these chapters. Both Maimonides and the Ibn Ezra
point out that the blemishes described in the text were contagious, and thus they posed a health risk to the community at large. Although they do not elaborate on this point in their commentaries, I believe their point has deep significance.

The message from the Torah to the Cohen, is that his responsibilities are not only the community's spiritual well being, but it's physical well being too.

After the Temple was destroyed and Israel was exiled from it's home, the Cohen's communal role was significantly reduced. Responsibility for spiritual leadership of the community moved to the Rabbi. And what marvelous stories we have, of Rabbis such as Reb Chaim of Brisk who it is said would not rest until he knew those in his community without wood for heat in the bitter winter had been looked after.

So this for me is one message, based on the positioning of these instructions at the center of the other (non health related) instructions - the message that Jewish leadership involves caring for people bodies, not just their souls.

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