It is hard not to be moved by the verses in our parashah which say that when a sheep or goat is born, it shall stay seven days with its mother, and that “no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day as its young.” (Leviticus 22:28) Though few of us are close to sheep or goats, we are sensitized to the feelings of animals from our loving relationships with our pets, and we feel the sensitivity the Torah holds for the sheep and goats, even though they are destined to become food for humans or sacrifices for God.
Scholars argue over why this law is included in the Torah, and though some argue that the primary concern is for the animal’s feelings, the medieval commentator B’khor Shor argues: “It is not because God pities the animal but in order that the people of Israel should not practice cruel habits.” Human beings should learn kindness and compassion from this law and it should become a part of them.
Alas – history shows that Jews have not always embodied this value, and that our persecutors have often made a mockery of the Torah’s sense of compassion. A midrash on the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem has Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses pleading before God not to keep the Jews in exile. Toward the end of the midrash, Moses cries out:
“‘O captors, as you live, if you kill, do not kill with a cruel death; do not bring on them total extermination; do not kill a son in the presence of his father, or a daughter in the presence of her mother. For the time will come when the Holy One will requite you.’ But the wicked Chaldeans [Babylonians] did even worse things: they put a child in its mother’s bosom and said to the father, ‘Up and kill it.’ As the mother wept, her tears fell on the child, while the father raised the child’s head [to cut his throat].
Moses went on defying the Holy One: ‘Master of the Universe, in Your Torah You wrote: “Whether it be a cow or ewe, you shall not kill it and its young both in one day.” (Lev. 22:28) But have not mothers and sons been killed again and again? Yet you remain silent!'” (Lamentations Rabbah, proem 24)
The midrash finally has our matriarch Rachel begging God, based on her own sufferings, not to banish the Israelites – her children – because of idolatry. And God responds: “For your sake, O Rachel, I will restore Israel to their place.” The midrash then quotes Jeremiah (31:16):
“Restrain your voice form weeping,
Your eyes from shedding tears;
For there is a reward for your labor…
There is hope for your future…
Your children shall return to their country.”
We celebrate this week not only Shabbat, but Yom Ha–atz–maut – Israel’s Independence Day. And while nothing can make up for the slaughter of millions of our people throughout history, we have hope today that most of our ancestors never lived to see: a reborn Israel – by no means perfect – but a place to which Rachel’s children have returned and in which they are living full lives as Jews. As those of us who have visited or lived in Israel know, it breathes according to the Jewish festivals enumerated in our parashah, and it speaks in the language of the Torah. And in its 55 years as a state, and before that as a growing settlement, it has tried, in numerous ways, to live according to the compassionate and ethical ways of the Torah. It is not easy to live that way when you are surrounded by enemies, and Israel has not always been able to reach the high standards set by the Torah and our tradition. But Israel has tried, and continues to try mightily to live as a country which is just and compassionate, and which honors the dignity of its people. We can only pray that changes in the Middle East will make it easier for Israel to live up to its full potential to be a “light unto the nations.”
The publication and distribution of Rabbi Melissa Crespy’s commentary on Parashat Emor are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.