The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.
The Rabbi of Chelm, the legendary town of holy fools, was on the weekly Village of Chelm Zoom call. Generally speaking, Chelmites don’t mute themselves, they aim the camera at their foreheads, and they sip tea with lemon while starring at the screen. For the rabbi, it’s a difficult work environment.
The first question came from Yankel. Yankel’s last question was why do the wealthy get cream and all the rest only get milk? The Rabbi of Chelm decided that from that time forward cream will be called milk and milk will be called cream. Yankel was so pleased he bought a “Make Milk Cream Again” hat. Now he had a new question.
“Rabbi,” Yankel began, “I have been in my house for days and days and I don’t know what news to trust. Whom should I consult?”
“Aha!” exclaimed the Chelmer Rebbe. “Just look at the last verse of last week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, and the first verse of this week’s portion, Emor. The last verse of last week’s Torah portion was Leviticus 20:27: ‘A man or a woman who has a ghost or a familiar spirit shall be put to death; they shall be pelted with stones — their bloodguilt shall be upon them.’
“Ovadia Sforno, the 16th-century Italian rabbi and Biblical commentator explains that all the Torah mitzvot that had been given prior to this warning are pathways to sanctifying the Jewish people through their observance of these mitzvot, and therefore anyone deviating from these commandments, turning instead to these non-living oracles, is doing precisely the opposite of what the Torah wanted. No wonder the penalty is so harsh!
“And now, the first verse of this week’s Torah portion, Leviticus 21:1: ‘The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin.’”
Yankel unmuted himself, noisily sipped his tea, and asked, ”Why was this verse about Kohanim followed by the verse about ghosts and familiar spirits?”
The Rabbi of Chelm smiled, “Yankel, Bahya ben Asher, the 14th-century Spanish rabbi and Biblical commentator, asked the same question: ‘Why was this section about Kohanim attached to the verse about ghosts and familiar spirits?’”
“OK,” said Yankel. “What does he say?”
“He finds an answer in the Midrash Tanhuma: It is absurd to consult the dead as opposed to the living God, found in the minds of living people. Scripture says, ‘And if you should ask, from whom shall we inquire, ‘come to the Levitical Kohanim . . . and act in accordance with the Torah that they teach you’ (Deuteronomy 17:9-11).
“’A man or a woman who has a ghost’ against ‘Speak to the Kohanim.’ In other words, seek Torah — or facts — from someone who is alive, living in the real and now, and not of someone who is dead and is of the past, or living in an imaginary world. As for today, just because someone’s lips are moving and making sounds from their mouths doesn’t mean that they are alive in their head and heart.”
Yankel sighed, and replied, “Yeah, that feels right.”
The Rabbi muted everyone and said to all:
“There are six Shabbats between Passover and Shavuot, and there are six chapters in Pirkei Avot. It is our custom to study a chapter each Shabbat. This is the fourth Shabbat, and this teaching is from chapter four: ‘Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? Someone who learns from everyone, as it is said in Psalms: From all who taught me have I gained understanding.’”
Yankel’s daughter, who is wise in all things, especially Zoom, sent a thumps-up emoji.