Holiness and the Blasphemer

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion


 

 

PARASHAT EMOR

 

HOLINESS AND THE BLASPHEMER

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

A.                 INTRODUCTION

 

In the last two weeks, we noted that Sefer VaYikra ceased discussing the laws regarding the priests, the sacrifices, and the Mishkan.  Instead, the Torah emphasizes striving for “kedusha” – holiness that accompanies us in all aspects of our lives.   Laws discussed cover all aspects of human experience – business, interpersonal, intimate, religious.  Last week, we pointed out that the structure of Sefer VaYikra follows Hashem’s charged to the Jewish people to become “a nation of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:5).  Whiles chapters 1-17 discuss how the Kohanim become “a nation of priests,” from chapter 18 until the end of the book, Sefer VaYikra focuses on creating “a holy nation.” Our sedra, Parashat Emor, continues discussing these issues of kedusha.    

 

The Parasha opens by describing special laws pertaining to the Kohanim, limiting their ability to mourn, and the disqualifications that prevent them from participating in the service.  Serving Hashem is not only a privilege, but demands it commands the respect of the people.  For that reason, the key repeating words of the section are “that they not profane My holy name” (21:6, 12, 15, 23, 22:2, 9, 15, 31) for “I am God that makes them holy” (21:6, 7, 8, 15, 23, 22:9, 16, 32). 

 

Our sedra continues with the cycle of holidays, all of which are termed “holy appointed times” (23:23:2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 21, 24, 27, 35, 37).  Here, performance of creative labor desecrates the day’s holiness.  While the responsibility lies on the people as opposed to the Kohanim, the goal remains the same – the sanctification of Hashem, this time through time.

 

The parasha seemingly concludes with descriptions of the Menorah’s oil and the Show table’s loaves of bread, when, without warning, the Torah interrupts the discussion of holiness with the following narrative:

 

(24:10) “The son of a Jewish woman, also the son of an Egyptian man, went out among B’nei Yisrael. And this son of the Israelite woman quarreled with an Israelite man in the camp. (11) The son of the Israelite woman blasphemed God’s Name, and cursed. They brought him to Moshe (his mother’s name was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, from the tribe of Dan), (12) and they put him in custody so that they could consult God.”

 

By itself, the text raises several questions:  Who was this man, that he deserved such a long introduction (the son of a Jewess and an Egyptian)?  What was the cause of his quarrel, and what led him to curse?  Did he curse another, using Hashem’s name, or did he direct his anger towards Hashem[1]?  Finally, why did B’nei Yisrael place him under house arrest?  Were they unfamiliar with the appropriate law, or were there other considerations?  Beyond all these details, however, we need to ask two questions: first, why did the Torah place this narrative in the middle of its listing of laws that revolve around achieving holiness?  Second, how are we to understand Hashem’s response to Moshe?

 

13) And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: (14) Remove the blasphemer from the camp, and let all those who heard place their hands upon his head, and let the entire congregation stone him. (15) And speak to B’nei Yisrael, saying: Any person who curses his God will bear his sin. (16) One who blasphemes will surely be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone him. Stranger and native born alike; when he blasphemes, he shall be put to death.” (17) “One who kills any person shall be put to death. (18) And one who kills an animal shall pay compensation: an animal for an animal. (19) And one who maims his neighbor – as he has done, so shall be done to him: (20) a fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth; as he has maimed the person, so shall be done to him. (21) And one who kills an animal shall pay compensation, while one who kills a person shall be put to death. (22) There shall be one law for you – identical for the stranger as for one who is native born; for I am Hashem your God.” (23) “Moshe spoke to B’nei Yisrael, and they brought the person who had cursed outside of the camp, and they stoned him with stones. And B’nei Yisrael did as Hashem had commanded Moshe.”

 

What are the laws of damages doing in the middle of the story?

 

B.                 WHO WAS THAT MAN?

 

To answer our questions above, we will first turn to the rabbinic interpretation brought by Rashi:

 

The Midrash states that he went forth from the courthouse of Moshe convicted, for he had attempted to place his tent among the tribe of Dan.  They said to him: ‘why are you placing it here’?  He responded: ‘because I am the son of a woman from the tribe of Dan’.  They said to him: ‘every man must encamp according to his tribal ensign, according to his FATHER’S house…’ (Bamidbar 2:2).  He entered the courthouse of Moshe.  When he was found guilty, he arose and blasphemed… (commentary to 24:10)

 

Rashi later identifies this man’s background.  His mother apparently behaved in an overtly outgoing manner, drawing the attention of the Egyptian overseer that would later impregnate her.  According to this approach, the curse emerged specifically because of the blasphemer’s problematic parentage – the fact that he was the son of an Egyptian man. The Torah does not even provide the two names of the men who were quarrelling; the only name mentioned is that of the woman who gave birth to a son fathered by an Egyptian man.  The effect is to focus the reader’s attention on the man’s lineage.  Finally, according to this understanding, the target of the person’s anger and blasphemy was Moshe and his court. 

 

A close reading of the literal meaning of the text, however, reveals that the emphasis on lineage deflects attention from the root cause of the curse – the fight between two individuals:

 

And this son of the Israelite woman quarreled with an Israelite man in the camp.  The son of the Israelite woman blasphemed God’s Name, and cursed.

 

To validate this assumption, we will re-examine Hashem’s response to Moshe.

 

C.                 THE STRUCTURE OF THE PUNISHMENT

 

Hashem’s ‘long-winded’ response provides us with a classic demonstration of a chiastic structure:

 

  1. And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying …
  2.    Remove the blasphemer from the camp, and let all those who heard place their hands upon his head, and let the entire congregation stone him
  3.        Any person who curses his God will bear his sin ...
  4.            Stranger and native born alike; when he blasphemes, he shall be put to death.”
  5.                 One who kills any person shall be put to death.
  6.                       And one who kills an animal shall pay compensation: an animal for an animal.
  7.                            And one who maims his neighbor – as he has done, so shall be done to him
  8.                                 a fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth

G1.                           as he has maimed the person, so shall be done to him

F1.                      And one who kills an animal shall pay compensation

E1.                  while one who kills a person shall be put to death.

D1.            There shall be one law for you – identical for the stranger as for one native born

C1.         for I am Hashem your God

B1.     and they brought the person who had cursed outside of the camp, and they stoned him with stones

A1.   And B’nei Yisrael did as Hashem had commanded Moshe.

 

As noted elsewhere, the primary purpose of a chiastic structure is to draw attention to the middle axis.  Surprising to the reader, who expected a strong denunciation of the desecration of G-d’s holy name, Hashem chose to focus on the laws of damages and injuries instead.  In the tumult after the blasphemy, B’nei Yisrael and the reader may have lost sight of the brawl that occurred, but Hashem did not.  Granted, the act of cursing is condemned.  Accompanying that condemnation though, Hashem first emphasizes the equality of all Jews before the law, whether they are natural or foreign born.  The person’s lineage, so emphasized before, is demonstrated to be irrelevant.  More importantly, Hashem establishes the Torah’s priorities.  The striving towards holiness in ritual matters is of unquestioned importance.  Blasphemy, the desecration of Hashem’s holy name, is punished by death.  Sefer VaYikra teaches us, however, not to confine kedusha to the realm of the ritual.  We achieve holiness is achievable through all avenues, as the second half of the book elucidates.  Even when dealing with a ritual offense, the central focus remains the inter-personal relationships between a person and his neighbor.

 



[1] Rashi understands "va-yikov" as uttering a curse towards another, as in, "How shall I curse... (mah ekov)" (Bamidbar 23:8); see Sanhedrin 56a. Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, raises two possibilities: "Some say that this means that he uttered God's Name explicitly, as in "which God's mouth will express (yikavenu)" (Yishayahu 62:2), or "...who were indicated (nikvu) by their names" (Bamidbar 1:17). Others say that it is to be understood as in "how shall I curse" (Bamidbar 23:8) – to curse another; but the first [interpretation] is more accurate, to my view." Ibn Ezra's views the sin here as the actual utterance of God's name. Rashbam concurs with Rashi, however, that the transgression was cursing the other party in the quarrel.