Pride, Power, and Corruption in the Name of God

Emor By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On May 2, 2014 / 5774 | Philosophy

In the wake of religious fundamentalism that plagues our world today, why aren’t religious leaders vocal in their opposition to bloodshed and corruption in the name of God? By turning a blind eye and silencing their voices, they tacitly give their approval, tarnishing their reputation as leaders and diminishing God’s presence in this world. Leadership, especially religious leadership, demands scrupulousness and accountability.

Our parashah this week, Parashat Emor, underscores this notion. The Torah reading opens by discussing the many behavioral stringencies that apply to the priesthood. As members of an elite that mediates the relationship between God and the people, the kohanim, or priests, must be mindful and deliberate in their service to God. Torah proclaims, “The Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Instruct Aaron and his sons to keep themselves apart (v’yinazru) from the hallowed things [or JPS translation, ‘to be scrupulous about the sacred donations’] that the children of Israel consecrate to Me, lest they profane My holy name . . . ’” (Lev. 22:1–2). As leaders of the Israelites, the priestly class is explicitly being held to a higher standard. What is the import of raising the bar so high for those who are so diligently serving God in the sacred precincts?

Guided by the Hebrew word v’yinazru, translated alternately as “to separate” or “to be scrupulous,” Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch elaborates on the linguistic root (n-z-r):

[T]he basic meaning of nezir definitely has the idea of exclusion from some sphere . . . the command that “they keep themselves apart from the hallowed things of the children of Israel” accordingly, makes the demand to the kohanim that they are not to consider themselves simply unconditionally entitled to the “holy things” which are handed over to them by the people. There are times when they have to consider themselves excluded from them, to stand as strangers (zarim) towards them, and may neither deal with them for the sacrificial service nor eat them. (Commentary on Torah: Leviticus II, 610)

Quite beautifully, Hirsch goes far beyond the peshat, the literal meaning, of the expression v’yinazru. He connects the word not only to nezir but also to zarim (strangers). There is a time for the priests to be insiders, but there is also a time that they will be outsiders or strangers. The lesson is critical. Given priests’ elite status as leaders in the community, Torah expresses the ever-present concern that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When one achieves a certain status, there is a feeling of invincibility and self-importance. Such people often feel a sense of entitlement and excessive comfort. And too often, these feelings lead to abuses of power. In the role of priest (rabbi), the danger becomes all the more serious. Missteps by priests, as servants to and representatives of God, will undoubtedly be projected onto God and the entire religious system. One must be ever vigilant when serving the people in this capacity.

This vividly calls to mind the opening chapters of the first book of Samuel, which relate not only the appearance of the prophet-judge Samuel, but even more importantly, the chaos and corruption that leads to an alternative form of rule for the Israelites. Eli, who was the high priest at the time, oversaw a troubling and corrupt culture in the Israelite devotional site of Shiloh:

Now Eli’s sons were scoundrels; they paid no heed to the Lord. This is how the priests used to deal with the people: when anyone brought a sacrifice, the priest’s boy would come along with a three-pronged fork while the meat was boiling, and he would thrust it into the cauldron or kettle or the great pot, or the small cooking pot, and whatever the fork brought up, the priest would take away. This was the practice at Shiloh with all the Israelites who came there . . . the sin of the young men against the Lord was very great, for the men treated the Lord’s offerings impiously. (I Samuel 12–17)

As Rabbi David Silber points out in his brilliant and illuminating essay, “The Birth of Samuel and the Birth of Kingship,”

[W]hen the Torah speaks about the Priestly gifts, it is always about priests receiving gifts. It never discusses priests taking. The Talmud goes even further, explaining that the priest is not even allowed to give the appearance of taking. He is supposed to wait until after the animal is sacrificed and the incense is burned on the altar. Only then may a priest gather up his priestly portion. (Tanakh Companion: The Book of Samuel, 5)

True leadership is multivalent, requiring attention to one’s internal life and external actions. This lesson is especially true for those of us in public positions of leadership. One must be consistently mindful, introspective, and self-critical. Only through examining one’s self and being conscious of one’s own flaws, can one then avoid the pitfall of pridefulness. Being an insider requires knowing full well when you must also be an outsider. Violence in the name of religion and corruption in larger society should and must be condemned by religious leaders. Their voices must become the moral compass by which we live our lives. That indeed is the sacred lesson of Parashat Emor.

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.