Emor | The Blasphemer
Parashat Emor begins with a series of injunctions directed towards the Kohanim or Priests. With the exception of the seven immediate relatives (father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, spouse) whose death rites they may attend, the Kohanim are otherwise to refrain from any contact with corpse Tuma that would temporarily disqualify them from serving at the Mishkan/Tabernacle. Additionally, like the rest of their Israelite brethren, they are to avoid extreme mourning practices such as plucking out the hair of the head or gouging the skin. In short, they must strive to be "holy to their God. They must not profane the name of their God, for their offer God's sacrifices and must therefore be holy" (VaYikra/Leviticus 21:6). Thus, like much of the rest of this Book, our Parasha begins by introducing laws that in large measure are concerned with the conduct and character of the Kohanim.
While the first half of our Parasha addresses the Priests exclusively, the second half presents in chronological order the holiday cycle that is to be celebrated by all of Israel. The Sabbath and then the Pilgrim Festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Succot are all spelled out, as are the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But in addition to detailing the special ritual observances of each of the days, the Torah also indicates the requisite sacrifices to be presented by the Kohanim at the Mishkan, thus linking the immediate discussion with the more general themes of the 'Priestly Code'.
Towards the end of the Parasha, some additional Mishkan-related laws are enumerated. First, the Torah details the special provisions of the oil used to kindle the Menora – it must be from ripe olives, obtained by hand from the first pressing, and exceedingly pure. Next, the Torah spells out the preparation of the loaves for the Table of the Showbread. Each one of the twelve must be baked from a measure of two "esronim" of flour, and the two divisions, that each consist of six loaves placed on either side of the Table, must be provided with an associated offering of frankincense. In short, while the inclusion of these various laws pertaining to the Menora and to the Table may seem at first glance to be extraneous, it is in fact entirely appropriate given the broader context. After all, both vessels are essential elements in the landscape of the Mishkan, and therefore, like the laws of the Priesthood or of the holiday sacrifices enumerated earlier, their detailed ceremonial pertains to the underlying theme of the Parasha, namely the exclusive responsibilities of the Kohanim.
THE FINAL SECTION
It is however, the final section of the Parasha that is most baffling. Without any introduction whatsoever, the Torah abruptly presents us with a troubling piece of unconnected narrative:
A man whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was an Egyptian went out into the midst of the people of Israel, and strove (there) with an Israelite man. The man whose mother was an Israelite pronounced the name and blasphemed and they brought him to Moshe, and the name of his mother was Shelomit daughter of Divri from the tribe of Dan. The placed him under guard, for it had not been indicated what was to be done with him.
God spoke to Moshe saying: "Remove the blasphemer to the outside of the camp and all those that heard shall place their hands upon his head, and then all of the congregation shall stone him. To the people of Israel you shall say as follows: any man that curses his God shall bear his transgression. One who blasphemes the name of God shall surely die, for all of the congregation shall stone him, whether convert or citizen he shall die if he blasphemes the name."..(VaYikra 24:10-16).
The episode of the blasphemer is quite obscure. We do not know why his lineage merits mention, we are not told why he strove with the Israelite man, and we are left to ponder the impetus for his sacrilege. One thing, however, is certain: the Torah regards the act of blasphemy as a grievous crime, for the punishment of stoning is typically applied in response to only the most severe provocations.
The passage, and with it the Parasha, then concludes with a repetition of "laws of retaliation" that seem more suited to the civil code of Shemot 21-23 (and in fact are directly paralleled by Shemot 21:23-25):
"A man who murders any person shall surely die. One who kills an animal shall make restitution, one soul for the other. If a man causes injury to his fellow, then as he did so shall it be done to him. A break for a break, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, just as he caused injury to his fellow so shall it be done to him. One who kills an animal shall make restitution, but one who kills a person shall die. A single law shall apply to the citizen as well as to the convert, for I am God your Lord." Moshe spoke to the people of Israel and they removed the blasphemer to the outside of the camp and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did just as God had commanded Moshe (VaYikra 24:17-23).
Thus, besides the internal questions that the episode of the blasphemer raises, we are now confronted by external questions as well: how are we to understand the juxtaposition of the incident not only with what precedes it, but with what follows it as well? That is, is there a link between the blasphemer and the recounting of the holiday cycle and Menora/Table provisions on the one hand, or else between the blasphemer and the laws of retaliation on the other?
The early commentaries grappled with the questions outlined above but only provided partial or else uncomfortable resolutions. Typical in this respect is the commentary of Rashi (11th century, France), who provides us with no less than three explanations (numbered below for the sake of simplicity) for the conduct of the blasphemer, all of them culled from the earlier Rabbinic sources and together constituting a multiplicity of answers surely indicating that the matter may very well be textually irresolvable. Rashi comments:
The text states that "a man whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was an Egyptian went out." From whence did he go out? (1) Rabbi Levi says: he went out from his world. (2) Rabbi Berachya says that he went out from the preceding context, for he mocked and said: "'the loaves shall be arranged (on the Table) from one Sabbath to the next' (24:8). Is it the practice of a king to eat freshly baked bread or else to eat stale bread that is nine days old?!" (3) The Midrash of the Rabbis says 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…' (BeMidbar 2:2). He entered the courthouse of Moshe and emerged guilty and then he arose and blasphemed…(commentary to 24:10, and with variations in Midrash VaYikra Rabbah 32:3).
MANY EXPLANATIONS BUT NO ANSWER
All of the above "explanations" are ostensibly predicated upon the textual anomaly that introduces the section. "A man…went out" ("VaYetze") states the verse, but from where did he go out? Each one of the responses grapples with a different aspect of the puzzling episode. Thus, Rabbi Levi seeks insight into the psychological state of the perpetrator. He tells us that the man went out "from his world" presumably indicating that he embraced heresy as a precursor to his dastardly deed. How else to explain such nefarious conduct? Rabbi Berachya, in contrast, attempts to connect the episode with what immediately precedes it in the text – the description of the Showbread. Thus, the man must have ridiculed the ritual and it was that attitude of disdain that heralded his more serious outburst later on. As for the Rabbis, they too make use of the scanty details provided by the text. Why else to provide us with particulars of lineage – that the man was an Israelite only by virtue of his mother, that his mother hailed from the tribe of Dan – if not to indicate that his blasphemy was somehow related to those particulars?
Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain) is realistic enough to aver, concerning the extrinsic questions above, that "we do not know why these sections are joined…" (commentary to 24:10). But even he, echoing the opinion of Rabbi Berachya before him and then himself echoed in the commentary of the Ramban who followed, could not resist attempting to link the blasphemer to the matters that directly preceded it: "perhaps the blasphemer spoke improper words because of the showbread, the oil and the sacrifices."
THE BROADER CONTEXT
A consideration of the broader context may yield more reasonable results. Recall that the Parasha opens with a description of the special laws pertaining to the priests. They are not to become unduly defiled nor are they to exhibit signs of excessive mourning (21:1-9). The High Priest is not to mourn at all and is to be especially careful insofar as his conduct and demeanor are concerned (21:10-15). Additionally, while any Kohen that suffers from a physical deformity may consume sacrificial meats, he is disqualified from participating in the service (21:16-24). So too the Kohen who is "tamei" (22:1-16), or, for that matter, the animal that is blemished (22:17-25). In fact, even the presentation of an animal that is not yet seven days old is deemed an affront (22:26-33). And leaving over sacrificial meats beyond their permitted time frame for consumption is a desecration of their status (22:29-23). The sum total of the matter is to tell us in no uncertain terms that the service of God at the Mishkan is a noble privilege that demands from its Kohen practitioners as well as from its Israelite observers absolute reverence and respect. Thus it is that the recurring binary refrain of the Parasha's first section is "that they not profane My holy name" (21:6, 12, 15, 23, 22:2, 9, 15, 31) for "I am God that sanctifies them" (21:6, 7, 8, 15, 23, 22:9, 16, 32).
The second section of the Parasha, the Holiday cycle, also speaks of "holiness," "sanctification," and of its antithesis of "desecration." Without exception, all of the holidays are termed "holy convocations" (23:23:2, 3, 4, 7, 8, 21, 24, 27, 35, 37) and performance of labor constitutes a desecration of the day. But here, the focus is not upon the Mishkan exclusively (or even primarily) but rather upon the people of Israel. They sanctify the special days or else profane them in accordance with their deeds.
Now, the Parasha briefly returns us to the world of the Mishkan in its description of the Menora's oil and the Table's loaves and then catapults us into the episode of the blasphemer, seemingly without warning. In fact, however, the matter is crystal clear, for what is blasphemy if not the utter desecration and profanation of God's holy name? The refrain of "that they not profane My holy name" that opened the Parasha and highlighted the special responsibilities of the Kohanim is here applied quite literally to the people of Israel. For the Kohanim to inappropriately serve in the Mishkan is an affront to God; for an Israelite to denounce His holy name, though entailing no tangible deed, is equally offensive.
THE UNDERLYING STRUCTURE
The structure of the Parasha that moves seamlessly from the world of the PRIESTS (21:1-22:33) to that of the ISRAELITES (23:1-44), only to return to the PRIESTS (24:1-9) and then finally to the ISRAELITES again (24:10-23) not only divides up the laws pertaining to the respective subjects into passages of roughly equal length but, more importantly, stresses the PARALLELS between their two worlds. Structurally, a narrative section that follows this A – B – A' – B' pattern does not highlight a central or pivotal section but rather emphasizes some sort of repetition, linkage or analog. The inner world of the Kohanim at the nucleus of the Mishkan and the outer world of the Israelites within their surrounding camp are not independent dimensions of existence, each with their own peculiar rules and regulations, but rather interrelated and intimately connected. Though the confines of the Mishkan may be marked off physically from the rest of the camp, the holiness and sanctity of God that are its hallmarks must infuse the camp of the Israelites with equal intensity. Thus, the profanation of His name, though it may take different forms depending on the setting, is a heinous crime wherever it takes place.
The matter is neatly emphasized even more by the internal links between the passages. That is to say that the formula (A – B – A' – B') not only implies a relationship of A to B as well as of A' to B', but (if it is truly cohesive) also suggests a connection between A and B' as well as B and A'. It is thus not accidental that the earlier sections spelling out the exalted priestly lineage (21:7, 10, 13-15) are mirrored by the marred lineage of the blasphemer (24:10), that "the profanation of My name" by inappropriately conducted Mishkan rituals is mirrored by the blasphemer's curse of that very name, or that the description of the blemishes ("moom" – 21:17-21) that disqualify the priests is mirrored (at least lexicographically) by the injuries ("moom" – 24:19-20) entailing restitution that are (otherwise inexplicably) appended to the section of the blasphemer .
In similar form, the Holiday section that stresses the sanctification of those days by the Israelites but also introduces the attendant sacrifices offered by the Kohanim as an expression of that very holiness in the Mishkan, is mirrored by the service of the Menora and the Table that is conducted by the Kohanim in the holy space but made possible by the fuel and flour furnished by the "People of Israel" (24:2, 8). The effect is therefore not only straightforward but also pronounced: holiness and sanctification are to be sought everywhere; profanation and iniquity are to be everywhere avoided.
Thus it is that the episode of the blasphemer lands upon us like a hammer blow. The Torah provides us with but the most meager of details concerning his lineage or motivations because these are absolutely secondary. What matters most is that the man cursed God's holy name and brought ruin upon himself by his indiscretion. In light of the above analysis, however, it is now clear that the episode of the blasphemer is anything but out of place. It is furnished by the Torah at precisely this juncture to provide us with a not-so-subtle correspondence to the theme of a splendorous and solemn Mishkan that can yet be defiled by inattentiveness.
What difference is there, the Torah seems to say, between desecrations wrought in His house by indifferent priests versus those conducted in the camp of Israel by insensitive and unholy words? And what true difference is there, the Torah pointedly implies, between an exclusive and privileged service of the Kohanim that highlights holiness (but sadly, is no more) versus the more mundane but equally exalted deeds of the people of Israel that can yet sanctify God's blessed name in the world?