Our portion this week, Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23), deals with many commandments, the largest part relates to Jewish laws of the priestly class who served God in the Temple. One of these commandments is the mitzvah of terumah, a certain percentage of the field’s yield given to the priestly class. The text teaches us under what condition the priest can eat from the gift and when this is forbidden; who of the priest’s family can eat from the gifts and who cannot, and other issues connected to this commandment.This mitzvah, 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. Therefore, even one sheaf can be the gift from an entire field. Any addition to this single sheaf is given from the goodness of the farmer’s heart, as one recognizes the significance of this mitzvah.
Why would a farmer want to give a free-will offering to a priest? 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 one’s 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 priests 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. The priestly clan 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 their field and sees blessing in their yield might see the field as merely an economic issue disconnected from the spiritual and ideological world. But the Torah instructs one to put the spiritual world “into” their 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 coming week, Monday night and Tuesday, 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 Yochai 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 Yochai? 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 Yochai, 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 Yochai. On this day, we celebrate the survival of the Jewish people’s spiritual world; the survival of our spiritual greats, the teachers of Torah. We too will celebrate our teachers tonight – please come and join with us as we together share our gratitude.