Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Emor Ve'Amartah

Rashi notes that Parshat Emor's opening line includes the doubled phrase: emor/ve'amartah. At first glance this sounds like no more than a poetic way of saying that Moshe was to instruct the Kohanim about the law that they can not become tamei - impure via a dead body. Many times Moshe is commanded with a doubled phrase to speak to the people: daber/ve'amartah. Rashi does not comment on this terminology. Each of these words has its own meaning.

According to the mechiltah, daber means to tell the people the headlines; ve'amartah means to then go into the details - teaching 101. Rash never questions the ubiquitous appearance of the pairing of daber and ve'amartah because thy each have a separate and distinct meaning. However, Rashi asks about emor being followed by ve'amartah because the same exact wording is used twice in a row, implying that the same type of reporting was to be repeated. His answer (via Chazal in Yevamot 114b) is "lehazhir gedolim al haketanim," , "to warn the big regarding the small." The meaning of this phrase and the reason why this exhortation appears specifically in this context are unclear. The simplest understanding of this statement is that the kohanim were additionally commanded to explain and pass this law on to their children.

Rabbi Bernard Weinberger in his Shemen HaTov notes that tum'ah and taharah are metaphors for that which lies beyond our local comprehension. While all Torah must be taught to children, a major lesson to transmit is represented by this portion. We must humbly keep and pass on the truth of G-d's omniscience, over and above passing on the notion that our logic can explain all things. The context here is crucial, particular diligence must be taken to teach a contrite approach to our children and students. A key to our closeness to G-d – paradoxically – is to accept the gap between us and G-d.

The following is another take suggested by Rabbi Weinberger on the meaning of "lehazhir gedolim al ketanim": Sometimes we label people to poor effect. Certain individuals are seen as major players, some as minor players, and some not considered players at all. The authority vested in us by G-d implicitly trusts us to treat others with appropriate care. But while we are often too quick to slap our own labels onto others (like kick me signs at a third grade recess), we are sometimes slow in reading the care instructions provided by The Manufacturer. Anyone in a position of control over others stands forewarned. Parents, teachers, siblings, and friends (also policemen, office managers, department of motor vehicles workers) are all exhorted to treat with prudence those who pass our lives' paths.

The Gemorah in Taanit says that a young student is compared to a small seed , in that "once it has blossomed, it has blossomed" - "keivan denavat, navat". A small seed appears identical to a small stone. The difference is in potential. If someone throws a pebble away, nothing is lost. But in a neglected seed lie worlds that were waiting to be born, killed by a failure to see the seed for what it is. The gedolim must remember the ketanim lest our future be lost.

In Sholomo HaMelech's instruction: "Chanoch lena'ar al pi darcho" - "Teach a youth according to his way" - the word chanoch – teach - is written without a vav. Rabbi Paysach Krohn notes that everyone likes this idea of teaching other people in their appropriate way when it applies to those we see as developmentally whole or advanced. However, when we look and don't find the vav, when someone has needs that challenge us we are tempted to look away. This omission of a letter poses the metaphorical question: what do we do when the vav isn't there? The correct answer is that specifically in the case of a challenging student we must do our best to meet his or her needs.

My thought on this is that according to the above cited approach the word for youth - na’ar - should be written in an incomplete way. The fact that the verb chanoch - teach - is written incompletely tells us that difficulties that arise in teaching others come about not because of the incompleteness of the student but due to the imperfections of the teacher. After all, no-one is perfect. And yet, parents, teachers, relatives and friends must all try to teach as best we can, despite our own incompleteness. May we be so blessed.


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