Sidrot and books of the Chumash do not really have names. We identify them by their first important Hebrew word. Thus the first book of the Chumash is B’reshit, not necessarily because of its contents but because it begins, B’reshit bara Elokim – “In the beginning God created”.
This week’s reading is Emor, “Say”, because it opens with a command to say certain things to the kohanim, the sons of Aaron. Yet in theory at least the Torah could have said, “Tell the kohanim”. “Say” is a softer word than “tell”.
The rabbis make this point in their commentary on Exodus 19:3, which reads, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the Children of Israel”. “House of Jacob” is the women; “Children of Israel” are the men. To the women Moses could speak more gently. To the men, whose innate spirituality was less, his language had to be more blunt and direct.
If the choice of “say” or “tell” depends on gender, how is it that “say” is used in relation to the male kohanim?
The answer must surely be that because the kohanim are close to God by virtue of their ministerial role, the gentler approach is appropriate for them.
Move to our own day. For us to get the Divine message do we need telling, or is saying enough?
If we had the sweet spirituality of some previous generations, we would only need a gentle hint from the Almighty and we would understand at once.
But we are subject to far more severe challenges than any previous age. Two or more centuries of Enlightenment and Emancipation have made belief more difficult. Ideological atheism has affected faith. And the Holocaust, though not our first experience of horrific suffering, has raised theological questions that are more insistent than ever before.
Yet at the same time an amazing thing is happening. There may be more people who do not believe, but there is also an increasing number who are restless and in search of belief. Using harsh language will not help them in their quest. For them the best way is the gentler one with its calm assurance, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:9).
Intellectual browbeating will not argue a person into faith, but gently opening heart and soul to the presence of God will make all the difference.