This week’s Torah portion is Emor, Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23.
In case you haven’t been following the story, the Israelites, after being liberated from Egypt, find themselves being transformed from a ragtag group of former slaves into an organized functioning nation, united by a belief in a single, loving God.
Vayikra describes how God’s laws would organize this motley gathering into a nation that would reflect Adonai Echad’s holiness. This emergent nation receives instructions for new ways of living, guided by divine wisdom. They include a complete judicial system, a set of secular laws and guidelines and a structured calendar designed to highlight and honor God, their community’s story, and the environment in which they live. For the past weeks, we have been getting a blueprint for living.
This week’s installment of our unfolding story, Emor, means “speak.” One might imagine that the laws we have been receiving these past few weeks have already involved communication, so why, now are we asked to consider all these laws through the lens of public speaking?
I am convinced that this week’s parsha has a lot to say to all of us listening to the avalanche of speech that has cascaded over us during the current presidential primary season.
I can’t imagine a time in my life where the complexities of ethical public speaking has played such a central role in daily mass communication. Technology has changed since Moses addressed the Jewish nation. He spoke live to a crowd larger than 25 University of Michigan stadiums full of people. (How his message was able to reach the entire crowd, I leave to the realms of miracles. I know how hard it is to get a synagogue sound system to work just right.)
However, the manner in which the laws were shared and the way he spoke mattered. In a simple and direct manner, Moses outlined rules for community festivals, how the legal and civic systems would mete out punishment and rewards, in a manner that was civil, ethical and direct.
What isn’t in Emor is inflammatory rhetoric designed to motivate hate and appeal to people’s fears and selfishness. What doesn’t appear is a manner of speech designed to make the speaker look smart and powerful to suit a personal agenda. Moses’ message was delivered in a way that honors God, that elevated the sacredness of community, that described creative ways to reify a practice of gratitude and joy through holiday rituals, and that made sure that the widow and orphaned, the poor and the needy were cared for and protected. When speaking to the nation, Moses’ speech was ethical, honorable and kind.
How we transmit information is as important as the message itself.
Marshall McLuhan knew the value of speech when he wrote “the spoken word was the first technology by which man was able to let go of his environment in order to grasp it in a new way.”
When Moses spoke to the people, it was done to transform the mass of people into a holy society. Moses knew that speech could shape a motley, frightened, stiff-necked, complaining group of people into a nation which would someday be a “light unto the nations.” Emor suggests that for leaders to transform a nation, it must begin with ethical speech.
Let us hope that those running for the highest office in our nation will take time to consider the wisdom of this week’s parsha.
Chaya Silver is the education and youth director of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria.