God’s presence in the details

God’s presence in the details

Emor | Leviticus 21:1-24:24

When architect Mies van der Rohe announced, “God is in the details,” Jews were not surprised. Over the centuries, we have developed a fascination for the pratei hapratim, “the details of the details” in our sacred texts. A tantalizing detail, for example, is an apparent verbal redundancy in this week’s parsha, where God instructs Moses to “Tell the priests, the sons of Aaron — tell them not to incur pollution on account of the dead.” 

Why the double “Tell”? 

The rationalist Ibn Ezra thinks the first “tell” announces the rule, the second explains its rationale. Nahmanides thinks the doubling emphasizes that matters of death are particularly serious. Rashi, however, provides the gold standard of interpretation. The first “tell,” he says, instructs adults (g’dolim) to obey the rule, the second directs them to pass the lesson on to their children (k’tanim). 

But why make that double point in a rule regarding death? To answer, the Chatam Sofer reinterprets Rashi, whose terms g’dolim and k’tanim can also mean “prominent people” and “ordinary folk.” 

When prominent people die, says the Chatam Sofer, “their funeral is magnificent, their burial glorious, their eulogy wonderful. But the lowly or ordinary, orphans and widows, are not treated that way. The Torah therefore repeats the word ‘tell’ specifically regarding death so as to include the honor due the ordinary, not just the high and mighty.” 

Brilliant! A superb summary of the halachic insistence on burying everyone equally, and no one especially lavishly. The rule goes back to the Talmud, which recalls that funerals had become so onerous a financial burden that poor people abandoned their dead rather than bury them. So Rabban Gamaliel instructed his followers to bury him simply, wrapped in plain shrouds. Ever after, Jews have shunned expensive burials and costly caskets.

Judaism insists we are all equal in death — g’dolim or k’tanim, rich or poor, learned or ignorant — when we die, we die. 

But another problem arises. If all are honored equally in death, why pursue a moral life? 

With this in mind, the great hasidic master Ya’akov Yitzchak — known also as The Seer of Lublin — returns to the double “tell.” The priests, he explains, are descended from Aaron, who tacitly permitted even the golden calf, rather than confront the people. His progeny too were so ready to empathize with those they led that they were inclined to “pursue peace” at all costs. The Torah therefore reminds the priests (by extension, everyone) that there are limits to peace-making; hence the double “tells”: “Tell” [the priests to seek peace] but “Tell them” also [that peace should not be at the expense of sacrificing moral principles].

So from Rashi we learn that God’s instructions must be practiced by adults (g’dolim) and taught to children (k’tanim). From the Chatam Sofer we see that g’dolim and k’tanim can mean “prominent” and “ordinary” — all are equal in death. And the Seer of Lublin cautions us that despite that equality in death, the moral stand we make in life still matters. 

All this, from one tiny verse and from the Jewish way of Torah that thrives on God’s presence in details. 

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