The last Reform service at Columbia/Barnard Hillel this year is centered on the theme of Disney's Frozen. My d'var Torah shows the connections between this week's parashah and the year's greatest animated sensation.
2 May 2014 / 3 Iyyar 5774
Frozen in Leviticus
This week’s parashah, Emor, opens with instructions to the Israelite priests not to come into contact with any dead body.
.וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל-מֹשֶׁה אֱמֹר אֶל-הַכֹּהֲנִים בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם לְנֶפֶשׁ לֹא-יִטַּמָּא בְּעַמָּיו
The Eternal said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: None shall defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin (Lev. 21:1).
This stipulation preserves the priests’ sanctity by protecting them from the defiling contamination of death. It’s part of the greater project of Leviticus to arrange Israelite society into careful order. Death always causes impurity, and most people can simply cleanse themselves after handling a dead body. Priests, though, are special, and they need to be kept apart from death altogether.
But there’s an exception. While priests generally aren’t allowed to come into contact with any dead body, even a family member’s, exceptions are made for a priest’s parents, children, and siblings.
.כִּי אִם-לִשְׁאֵרוֹ הַקָּרֹב אֵלָיו לְאִמּוֹ וּלְאָבִיו וְלִבְנוֹ וּלְבִתּוֹ וּלְאָחִיו. וְלַאֲחֹתוֹ הַבְּתוּלָה הַקְּרוֹבָה אֵלָיו אֲשֶׁר לֹא-הָיְתָה לְאִישׁ לָהּ יִטַּמָּא
…except for the relatives that are closest to him: his mother, his father, his son, his daughter, and his brother; also for a virgin sister, close to him because she has not married, for her he may defile himself (Lev. 21:2-3).
This is no small matter. Time and time again, the priests are shown to be special individuals, separated from the rest of the Israelite community. But for the sake of close family members, especially a young sister, priests may transgress the boundary that normally sets them apart from everyone else. These intimate relationships disrupt the tight, ordered existence of the priests and launch them into a world of frightening disarray. The laws which preserve a priest’s sanctity must be set aside when his love for his family overrules them.
This is also one of the morals of Disney’s Frozen. Queen Elsa, distinguished with unique magical powers, must keep herself rigidly separated from everyone else in her kingdom in order to preserve their faith in her ability to rule. She must even hide herself from the only living family she has, her beloved sister, Anna. If she slips up, she risks endangering her sister, whose life has already been threatened through careless use of her powers in the past, and she also risks destabilizing the entire country, for they would not be able to operate without a steady and reliable ruler.
Indeed, this nightmare scenario is exactly what happens. The queen’s secret is discovered, piercing the veil of ignorance that has maintained peace in the kingdom for decades. Elsa flees her kingdom, leaving behind chaos and confusion.
And this is where the Academy Award-winning song “Let it Go” takes place. Called by Entertainment Weekly an “incredible anthem of liberation,” “Let it Go” can be understood as a song about freedom from judgment and control. However, I believe that this song can also be understood as the tragic undoing of all safety nets in Queen Elsa’s life. Her foray into the wilderness unchains her from society and distances her from the most important person in her life, leaving her isolated and desperate in a world devoid of relationship.
The snow glows white on the mountain tonight
Not a footprint to be seen.
A kingdom of isolation,
And it looks like I’m the queen.
Elsa has exchanged a kingdom of men and women for a kingdom of isolation. Instead of a frosty relationship with Anna she has only a snowy mountain.
It’s time to see what I can do,
To test the limits and break through.
No right, no wrong, no rules for me:
Let it go, let it go.
I am one with the wind and sky.
Let it go, let it go.
You’ll never see me cry.
Unshackled from the expectations of society, Elsa no longer has to hide her true self from people who don’t understand her. But at the same time, she no longer has the option to seek comfort from another human being. She is not one with her family; rather, she is “one with the wind and sky.” Though she no longer needs to feel shame, it is tragic when she declares, “You’ll never see me cry.”
Let it go, let it go,
And I'll rise like the break of dawn.
Let it go, let it go.
That perfect girl is gone.
Here I stand
In the light of day.
Let the storm rage on.
The cold never bothered me anyway.
From her perspective, Elsa feels liberated, able to begin a new life “like the break of dawn.” But the tragedy here is that the light she now experiences in her life brings only darkness for those she once cared about. She eagerly invites, “Let the storm rage on” without considering the consequences that storm will have on her family and her people. “The cold never bothered me anyway,” she declares, without concern for the havoc the cold will wreak upon her kingdom. Yes, Elsa is now without bounds, able to do whatever she wants. But this kind of freedom can be achieved only outside society, where relationship is impossible and only giant snow monsters can be found for company.
At the time of “Let it Go,” Elsa is like an Israelite priest in the face of death. She has transgressed the boundaries she’s not supposed to transgress. But there’s still hope for redemption, and in both cases—for Elsa and the Israelite priest—it comes in the form of a younger sister.
For the priest in our parashah, a young sister is specifically mentioned as someone who merits his attention, even if it would cause him to transgress boundaries. Because of their close relationship, the priest can defile himself and still maintain his special status.
For Elsa, the “true love” of her sister Anna has a similar effect. Only her love for her sister brings Queen Elsa back to her kingdom, and it is this relationship that restores Elsa to her position. When Queen Elsa resumes her throne at the end of the movie, she does so fully out of the closet about her powers. She has broken the boundaries that had always been off-limits for her, but because of her relationship with her sister, this taboo transgression ultimately ends up being kosher.
So in the end, Frozen and Leviticus aren’t so different. They’re both stories about special powers that need to be protected, and they both teach us that the relationships with those closest to us transcend our need to maintain rigid borders. Sometimes, we have to break the rules for those we love most, and when done with love and conviction, these exceptional acts of bravery can change the course of our entire lives.
 The Talmud adds a priest’s wife to this list. From The Jewish Encyclopedia: “In contradistinction to Lev. xxi. 2-4, the Talmudic law includes the wife among the persons of immediate relationship. It specifies, moreover, that it is the duty of the priest to defile himself for the sake of his deceased wife or, in fact, for any of his immediate kin, and that compulsion must be used in the case of any priest who refuses to do so, as in the case of the priest Joseph on the occasion of his wife’s death (Sifra, l.c.; M. Ḳ. 20b; Yeb. 22b, 90b; Naz. 47b, 48a, b; Zeb. 100a; “Yad,” Ebel, ii.; Yoreh De’ah, 373).”
 Sneitker, Marc. “Disney’s ‘Frozen’ soundtrack: Ranking all nine original songs.” Nov. 30, 2013. Available: http://popwatch.ew.com/2013/11/30/disney-frozen-soundtrack-ranking/.
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