Parshas Emor continues with the main theme of the previous Parshiyos of Sefer VaYikra, namely, the laws related to the Kohanim. Indeed, all of Sefer VaYikra is called Toras Kohanim. One cannot help but ask why the Torah finds the laws of the Kohanim so important that it devotes virtually an entire Sefer to them. Most Jews are not Kohanim. Furthermore, for the majority of our history, we have lived without the Bais HaMikdash and Korbanos; without practical applications for laws such as Tumah and Taharah, Tzoraas, and so on. Why then does the Torah find these laws so important to detail, and how can the average, modern Jew find meaning wading through law after law relevant principally to Kohanim in the time of the Mishkan and Bais HaMikdash?
Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, known as the Shelah HaKadosh, offers an eye-opening perspective. He writes that the second Posuk of Sefer VaYikra, saying "אדם כי יקריב...," "A man, when he will bring [a sacrifice]...," is an allusion to Adam HaRishon, the first man. He then goes on to explain in many places, in great detail, how the conglomeration of laws known as Toras Kohanim, which modern man tends to find so archaic, is really one integrated whole; a set of techniques designed to correct the imperfection and instability brought into the world by the first man's sin. He calls this constellation of laws "Tikkun HaAdam," the rehabilitation of mankind. And that is the purpose of Sefer VaYikra: to teach us how to repair the damage in our world and in our very selves wrought by Adam's sin. Consequently, since most of us are familiar with the story of Adam and Chavah, the snake, the Garden of Eden, and so on, it makes fascinating and ultimately relevant study to uncover in these "archaic" laws parallels to the familiar themes and universal principles set down "in the beginning."
Let us briefly examine one example, the laws of Tzoraas. A person afflicted with any of the skin conditions known as Tzoraas must first come before the Kohein. In fact, from the initial identification of Tzoraas to the ultimate declaration of purity, the Kohein must preside throughout. Why must it be only a Kohein? Why can't any competent Halachic authority declare the Metzora who is afflicted with this condition pure or impure?
The Shelah HaKadosh answers that the Kohein, and particularly the Kohein Gadol, represents rehabilitated man. Adam's sin resulted from the Lashon Hora, "evil speech" or slander, uttered by the primeval snake. After their sin, Adam and Chavah put on כתנות עור, literally "garments of skin" (בראשית ג;כ"א) to remind them of their lowered status. (Previously, the Shelah writes, they wore "garments of light," כתנות אור). The skin affliction of the Metzora is a direct parallel. The classic Metzora is one who has spoken Lashon Hora. Therefore, his skin is afflicted as a direct parallel to the lowly "garments of skin" Adam and Chavah had to put on after they were seduced to sin through the Lashon Hora of the snake.
The Kohein, on the other hand, is the antithesis of Adam after the sin. He is the designated teacher of his people, whose lips utter Torah, not Lashon Hora. Moreover, he is dressed in the Bigdei Kehunah, majestic priestly clothing, reminiscent, the Shelah writes, of Adam's skin before the fall (when he was encloaked in "garments of light"). Thus when a Metzora comes before the Kohein, he is replaying, on one level at least, the experience of Adam who had to confront his diminished status, and who had to compare his present lowly status to the original potential he besmirched. And that stark contrast is meant to awaken the desire to regain holiness.
Parshas Emor continues the theme of the laws of Kohanim and then moves into a discussion of the Yomim Tovim. The Shelah HaKadosh writes that the connection centers on the fact that Kedushah, holiness, in the world after Adam's sin is restricted only to certain places, people, and times. For instance, had Adam not sinned, the whole concept of areas that are sanctified (such as the Bais HaMikdash) and areas that are not sanctified would not have existed. The whole earth would have been one large "Garden of Eden." Similarly, he writes, the entirety of mankind would have been a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation," not just the Kohanim. And, finally, every single day would have exuded the holy atmosphere of a Shabbos. And that, he explains, is why Parshas Emor moves from the holiness of people (the Kohanim) to the holiness of time (Shabbos and Yom Tov). Holiness exists in all people, all times, and all places in potential, but is found actualized nowadays only in certain people, times, and places. The ticket to living a holy life in this world is to associate ourselves with these few oases of sanctity.
What practical knowledge can we, living in America today, glean from all this? If one makes an error (and all of us do) one needs a role model. The Kohein, the holy man, is designed to be our role model. He is our ticket to Tikkun. In every generation, even in our times, there remain those who have tapped their inner holiness and unleashed it in their lives. They are our true Gedolim. With all due respect, many of the sports figures, rock stars, movie stars, and politicians whom we look up to are not true role models and therefore we should not allow the details of their lives and beliefs to so dominate our waking consciousness.
Realistically speaking, how can a red-blooded, fun-loving Jewish American sports fanatic become holy? It's not easy, but what we can do fairly easily is choose what to surround ourselves with. We can choose whose life's works and words to praise, whose biography to read and relish, whose picture to keep continually flashed in front of our mind's eye. If we surround ourselves with truly holy men, then even if we don't feel particularly holy ourselves, in time, a bit of the holy man's holiness will rub off. Like with the Metzora who comes before the Kohein, there's a process of osmosis; the deeper message sinks in.
One who comes to purify himself receives Divine aid, according to the Gemara in Shabbos (דף ק"ד.). If we overcome our desire to be lazy or profane even once, the next time is much easier. Soon we build up forward momentum. In time, we will find ourselves transformed. All it takes is a beginning, a single moment of serious commitment and concentration. The choice to create that moment is ours.