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A Focus on Life, Amidst Incidences of Death
This week's portion is titled Emor, which means "proclaim," "declare," "speak." But what is there to say after enduring two weeks of back-to-back "double-header" Torah portions that seem to serialize a sorry state of affairs?
First, we read Tazria and Metzora, which dealt with disease and decay. Then we read Aharei Mot and Kedoshim; the former refers to a tragedy, and the latter is the term we employ for martyrs. Can we really be ready to Emor -- proclaim anything positive when these parshah headings combine to effect one long litany of lament?
The news headlines of the last two weeks seem to parallel our parshah headings: the Virginia Tech tragedy, followed by the Johnson Space Center siege; the latest bombings in Baghdad, followed by the reports of the record rate of homicides that occurred right here in Philadelphia. Tragedy and trauma are followed by massacre and mayhem.
But with your permission, allow me a personal emor -- an "articulation," of sorts. For in the very act of mentioning his name, I hope to give him the honor and dignity he deserves. This name will now reverberate in the annals of the Jewish people as a hero; indeed, this name will be uttered by all caring and sensitive souls as a person who, in the midst of trial and tribulation, provided a modicum of hope and uplift. His name is Liviu Librescu.
I certainly don't mean to be callous and hard-hearted. But the facts speak for themselves. He suffered abuse and indignities in childhood, and was forced into a labor camp by Russians as a young man. As a teenager, he was deprived of his father, who was deported from their home by the Nazis. Subsequently, as a scientist in Romania, he was forced into isolation, and his articles were banned from publication.
And yet, this man did not take lives; he saved them by throwing himself in front of the shooter and, while blocking the doorway with his body, instructed his students to escape. They all did. The media made much of the killers e-mail messages. But I'd rather read Librescu's papers.
Am I writing about him because he's Jewish? Am I singling him out because of his ties to Israel? Let me then state that while I'm proud, I am not provincial. I may be partisan, but I'm not parochial. I am proud that Liviu Librescu was a Jew, and I am pleased to point out his connections to Israel. But more than that, I am partial -- to life.
This teacher opened a window for more than his students in his classroom. His heroic action has opened an opportunity for us all to reflect on what it is in a person that would make him want to save another man's life at the risk of losing his own.
The Real Theme
And isn't that the real theme common to all of these Torah portions? Tazria/Metzora feature one key character: the kohayn. Whereas other cults contemporaneous with our biblical narrative record their priests dealing in and dwelling on death, our Torah emphasizes how taboo that condition is for our kohanim.
The personal paradigm for our people of the ideal in our religion was instructed repeatedly to have no contact whatsoever with death, or even come close to anything associated with that state. While death and dying was accepted as a fact of life by others, he was charged with refocusing the community's attention away from the "impurity" associated with death, and restoring the status of the place and its people toward taharah, or "purity," which, in essence, was life. These portions in their proper perspective reveal how that's what we've been focusing on -- life!
The kohayn was the paradigmatic representative of the Jewish way -- a way that hallows life and calls for its constant sanctification. I don't know if Librescu was a kohayn, but he certainly acted like one. May his memory be for a blessing.
Rabbi Ira S. Grussgott is the religious leader of Congregation Kesher Israel in Center City.