The beit hamikdash - the biblical Temple - exists on the fringe of society. Although the entire book of Vayikra (and more) is dedicated to this buildingâ€™s details, people in ancient Israel rarely entered its domain. And even so, pilgrims were only permitted in the peripheries of the sanctuary. The buildingâ€™s regular denizens â€“ a small group of cohanim and leviim â€“ often worked behind the veil of holiness, invisible to all but God, briefly interacting with pilgrims on the shalosh regalim holidays or during infrequent sacrifices of thanksgiving and sin. The Talmud in Masechet Eiduyot describes how even the priestly dormitories and passageways were sealed off from the outside world in an ongoing battle to keep tumah, ritual impurity, outside.
Instead, lay people would most often interact with cohanim in their respective towns where local cohanim received regular tithes of fruit and bread. They may have functioned as religious authorities much like local rabbis today, teaching shiurim and educating children.
This extreme separation of the temple enabled the space to embody a unique level of kedusha (holiness, but literally â€œseparatenessâ€). Yet by virtue of being sanctified, it also has the potential of being a place of chillul hashem, religious desecration. As when a person wears a kippa, their virtues reflect well on the Jewish people, but their shameful actions alternatively cause chillul, kiddush hashem is only possible when we have the equal and opposite possibility of chillul.
Parshat Emor is about the tension between kiddush and chillul. With each commandment of a sacrifice or priestly position, opens the possibility of desecration. The parsha itself seems to straddle this tension between kiddush and chillul. In it, the Torah displays uncommon sensitivity to animal life with commandments against slaughtering a mother and child animal on the same day, and requiring offspring to be weaned before sacrifice. These laws are stated in technical detail, but the moral sensibilities they entail still reverberate today. In fact, it is on the basis of these laws that the great pre-war Lithuanian commentator, R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk, in his Meshech Chochma, argues that â€œthe entire Torah and all its commandments teach compassion, mercy, and chesed.â€ And yet our parsha includes the categorical exclusion of a cohen baal mum â€“ a disabled or disfigured priest â€“ from serving in the mikdash.