Parshat Emor: What it means to leave a legacy

In our lives:
This past week we have seen a “modern” example of sacrifice upon hearing the news of American troops killing Osama Bin Laden. All week I reflected on what Osama’s life meant and the legacy he would be remembered by. Reading countless news articles caused me to question, was Osama happy? And, although the US spent a decade hunting him, did our country do the right thing by killing him? These are not easy questions, and there may not be easy answers.

What Osama has in common with every other living person is the search for meaning in his life. This Shabbat I read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough: The Search for a Life That Matters. Kushner speaks of those who search for personal success as often finding themselves lonely. Osama was certainly successful in accomplishing his goals, but did this render him happy? I find myself feeling empathetic towards a man who couldn’t see past his own hatred and caused one of the most tragic events in US history. Kushner says of infamous biblical character Cain’s selfishness, “He becomes a wanderer on the face of the earth, with no place to call home, with no community to support or comfort him. The original looking-out-for-number-one man, like all of his descendants, is condemned to spend all of his days unconnected.” (p.63) I can only imagine life for Osama this past decade was isolating, as he became the world’s most hated man due to his terrorizing actions.

Conversely, I turn to history in search of what leaving a positive legacy might look like. This month is Jewish American Heritage Month. In order to honor the women who have been influential in Jewish history the Jewish Women’s Archive has created an Encyclopedia of Jewish women. As part of a larger education initiative, JWA has invited influential Jewish Tweeters to promote knowledge, and share what they learn about these women through Twitter and other social media. When I read about the lives these women have touched and the work they have accomplished it makes me proud to have these leaders in the Jewish community. It shows me as a society how far we have come in our recognition of Jewish women’s influence in our culture, and celebrating their accomplishments in their own fields. It appears to me that these women achieved both success and happiness by following their passions, as Kushner suggests is the answer to finding the life that matters. See what’s being said on Twitter: #jwapedia.

This week the torah says....
I turn to Parshat Emor to provide insight for what it means to leave a legacy as it speaks about both sacrifice, and honoring the dead. The torah talks about whom we honor and how we do so. Priests or Kohanim are particularly guarded from being in the presence of death as they are seen as holier than others. This is a continuation of Parshat Kedoshim in a series of explanations of what Jews do to maintain holiness and how we honor G-d.

We learn about retribution for blasphemy, and for murder. “ if anyone kills any human being, that person shall be put to death. One who kills a best shall make restitution for it: life for life. if anyone maims another (person): what was done shall be done in return—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. [….] but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I adonai am you G-d.” (Leviticus 24:17-22). Parshat Emor helps me come to terms with how to maintain holiness in our society may still be by having to eliminate those who have caused undue harm upon the innocent. I hope America regains it’s sense of justice in Osama’s death. However, even more importantly I hope that we continue to celebrate those who do achieve great accomplishments in their lives to further our society and our Jewish culture. Let us rejoice in a world where women are recognized for their contributions and where we are thankful for the gifts that we do have and let us not waste any more time on what seemed to be a necessary sacrifice for our country’s safety.

Elyssa Cohen has been involved in social justice work since high school, when she founded a chapter of the ADL’s education program “A World Of Difference” at her public school. Elyssa has always valued a strong sense of community, and has been involved in a variety of different organizations whose mission reflects this goal. Elyssa was a Jewish Organizing Initiative fellow in Boston and worked as the Community Organizer of Keshet, an organization working for the full inclusion of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender individuals within the Jewish Community. Elyssa is happy to have moved back to NY and to have joined the staff at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in the West Village. Elyssa is in the constant pursuit of justice! Check out more of Elyssa’s Jewish social justice writing at

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

How to cite this page

Cohen, Elyssa. "Parshat Emor: What it means to leave a legacy ." 13 May 2011. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 2, 2023) <>.

Read the latest from JWA from your inbox.

sign up now