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Parshat Emor – The Joy of Mitzvot

Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

Vayikra, 21:1: Hashem said to Moses: Say to the Priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: Each of them shall not contaminate himself to a [dead] person among his people.”

Rashi, Vayikra, 21:1: sv. Say to the Priests: “‘Say’ (emor) and ‘say’ (amarta), [the repetition is] to warn the adults with regards to the children.”

The Portion begins with G-d instructing Moses regarding the laws of the Priests (Kohanim). The verse repeats the term, ‘saying’ in order to teach us that Moses should tell the Priests to transmit the laws to their sons.(1) This teaches us a general principle in parenting (chinuch) that it is incumbent upon parents to teach their children the Torah laws. Rav Moshe Feinstein develops this lesson further.(2) He explains that the two expressions of ‘saying’ come to teach us that there are two aspects in educating our children about mitzvot.

The first is simply to teach them about their obligations and the accompanying challenges that they will need to overcome. However, this alone is insufficient; for if a child only hears this then he may feel that he is not strong enough to overcome the numerous challenges that he will inevitably face. Accordingly, the second ‘saying’ comes to add that the father must communicate the joy of keeping mitzvot to his children. In this way the child will receive the message that Torah observance is not simply a difficult challenge that must be overcome, rather it is the source of our well-being in this world as well as the next. In this vein, Rav Feinstein mentioned a phrase that was common amongst Jews of previous generations: “it is difficult to be a Jew”. He says that children that heard this message from their parents were being implicitly taught that Torah observance is a yoke that one must bear, despite all the challenges and difficulties it involves. As a result, many of these children grew up to see Torah as a burden and rejected it in their misplaced desire to achieve a ‘better’ life.

In this vein, the following story was told; in the early part of the twentieth century many Jews who moved to America faced the tremendous challenge of not working on Shabbat. Most employers insisted that their employees work on Shabbat and if they refused they would be instantly fired. Sadly, many Jews succumbed to this test and worked on Shabbat. Yet there were a minority who remained steadfast in their Shabbat observance despite the great challenges that this posed. There were two such men who did this, yet their children developed very differently. One of them merited to have children who devotedly followed in his footsteps to be G-d-fearing Jews. But the children of the other man did not grow up in the same way and rejected Torah observance.

This second man once approached Rav Aaron Kotler and asked him why his children had not followed in his footsteps whilst those of his friend did. He answered that whilst both men refused to work on Shabbat they expressed very different attitudes to their children. This man would return home on Friday after he was fired and come to the Shabbat table despondent, saying how difficult it was to keep the Torah in America. He constantly bemoaned his financial situation and worried about how he would find another job. His children would hear this and see how difficult Shabbat observance was; Shabbat, and by extension, all Torah, in their minds, became a difficult, unpleasant burden that only brought pain and sorrow every week. Unsurprisingly, as soon as they grew up, they were unwilling to undergo such ‘suffering’ and dropped Shabbat and the other mitzvot.

In contrast, his friend came home with an entirely different attitude. He came to the Shabbat table with great joy and enthusiasm, happy to have remained steadfast in his Shabbat observance. He saw it as a privilege to have stood up for the honor of Shabbat and was confident that G-d would enable him to provide for his family. Thus his children grew up seeing Torah observance as the key to a rewarding and meaningful life.(3)

This key lesson from Rav Feinstein and Rav Kotler provides us with the key to answer our original question. Our children will inevitably see others of different levels of Torah observance and standards, however if they are taught that observing the Torah is a joyous opportunity then they are far more likely to not be tempted by seemingly ‘easier’ or more ‘pleasurable’ lifestyles. One example of this is how parents approach Jewish holidays that require considerable work and preparation, such as Pesach. If the atmosphere in the home is one of tenseness at the burden of having to clean the house then the children will likely grow up with the attitude that Pesach is a burden. But if the hard work is approached in a positive way then they will see Pesach as a time of great happiness. One final vital point is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to communicate the joy of Torah observance to one’s children, if the parent does not feel that joy himself. Children are influenced far more by how we live, then what we say. Thus, as well as a key mesage in chinuch, this is an essential lesson in our own lives; that Torah is the only way to achieve true meaning and life satisfaction. If we inculcate that into our own lives then our children will surely emulate us.

By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen


1. Only sons of Priests are obligated in these unique laws.

2. Darash Moshe, Parshat Emor, p. 97.

3. Rav Mattisyahu Salamon tells over a similar idea in the name of Rav Moshe Feinstein. (With Hearts Full of Love, pp. 90-91). He points out that there were of course other factors that could come in to play with regards to how children grew up, but that as a general rule, the difference expressed above was at the root of the reason as to why some children kept Torah when they grew up, and others rejected it.

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