Say, What?

Emor, the name of this week’s parasha (Torah portion), simply means “Say,” and this verb is in the imperative mode. Here in the depths of the forests of Leviticus we read about things that Moshe is commanded to say to the people of Israel as they are forming their social structure. This parasha also has one of only two narrative passages in the entire book of Leviticus.

What kinds of things do you think it would be important to say to a nascent national entity as they begin to establish the way they want things to work? There are oh-so-many rules and guidelines to make a society work optimally…. In Exodus we heard the basics in the Aseret Ha-Dibrot (Ten Utterances, usually known as the Ten Commandments), but in Leviticus we get the nitty-gritties — all the little laws, some things not as obvious as the Big Ten.

Our G-dcast storyteller focuses on Moshe’s lecture on the holidays — when to mark them and when to celebrate them. Hmmm, would instructions about holidays be on your list of the most important instructions for a newly forming society? Maybe we can learn something essential about the way we are built psychologically if we consider why God deemed it important to make sure the Israelites knew about marking these holy-days.

When we mark the seasons in nature, when we remember special days like birthdays and graduations and anniversaries (of weddings or of deaths), we are differentiating that day from the endless progression of infinite time separating one day from another, from the routine. Chapter 23 lays out these special times, or as God tells Moshe to say, “These are my fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions” (Chapter 23 verse 2). Here in the desert, our rag-tag masses of former slaves, not particularly well-versed in how to live a good life, hear about the special “fixed” times for the Lord. And Moshe tells them how to go about marking these fixed times. Seems like a pretty important concept for the well being of this new nation.

Another set of rules offered at the beginning of the parasha is the laws of the priesthood, beginning in Chapter 21. Even though we don’t have a priesthood anymore in normative Judaism, it is nevertheless fascinating to think about what we need from our leaders, who the priests were in the days of the Israelite wanderings in the desert.

Why does God forbid a priest from coming into contact with the dead, or from marrying a divorced woman, or from serving if he is blind or has a broken leg? What would be the analogous parameters for today’s spiritual and political leaders? In this week’s D’var Torah by Professor Arnold Eisen of JTS, he unwraps the underlying message about the laws pertaining to priests.

At the end of parashat Emor, we change channels and read a very short and disturbing story in chapter 24 verses 10-16. It’s about a man who had an Israelite mother and Egyptian father. We even read his mother’s name, Shlomit bat Dibri of the tribe of Dan. This is an extremely rare occurrence — to get the name of a person’s mother (just think of all of the Biblical women who remain nameless, from Potiphar’s wife to Samson’s mother…). Apparently, Shlomit’s son did something that was so beyond the pale and so grievous that Moshe didn’t know what to do about it. What did this man do that was so awful? He blasphemed.

The blasphemer was placed in custody and brought before Moshe. Because Moshe didn’t know what to do, he went to commune with God; of course God was able to make a decision — the blasphemer needed to be put to death in a most horrifying way, by stoning. (By the way, in countries such as Afghanistan, this still occurs occasionally and we read about it and shudder.)

Some more questions:

  1. Who was this blasphemer and why do we find out that he had an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father? Was the intermarriage relevant?
  2. Why is this narrative here and what does it have to do with the rest of the parasha? The only other place that a narrative such as this appears is the story of Nadav and Avihu, back in Chapter 10, where it appears in parashat Shemini. Both of these stories end in death, and both seem to imply that lines have been crossed in something having to do with the essence of the way God is worshipped or spoken about.
  3. What does it mean to blaspheme? Could someone actually blaspheme today? What would he or she have to do to be considered a blasphemer? According to the rabbis of the Talmud, it is not just taking God’s name in vain (as forbidden in the Ten Commandments); rather, it is cursing God in public — that is, uttering imprecations against The Holy One, desecrating the Sacred. Doing something that is wrapped in mystery but that is intolerable and connected to speech (remember, our parasha is called, “EMOR/SAY!”).

While I have not been able to figure out what would constitute a blasphemer in our contemporary society, I would like to share a teaching from my teacher, Dr. Avivah Zornberg, in which she quoted a midrash from Tanhuma. Tanhuma, dating back to at least the 4th/5th centuries, is a collection of stories and discussions of specific laws connected with the Torah, that is to say, “aggadot” (a word that shares its root with hagaddah, the book that tells the story of Passover).

The back story on the identity of this blasphemer is that he was conceived by an Egyptian taskmaster and an Israelite slave woman, back when the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt. One day, a taskmaster told one of his Israelite work-gang leaders (who were slaves) to assemble his gang. When the Israelite slave left, the Egyptian taskmaster raped the slave’s wife. The result of this coupling was the son who grew up to be the blasphemer. When Moshe heard about the rape, back in Egypt, he killed this same taskmaster and buried him in the sand.

Fast forward to the desert, years later, when this son is an adult. Dr. Zornberg describes him as the quintessential “ger” (stranger). Now we begin to understand why it is that his parentage is noted (when the Torah often leaves out so many details we want to hear about). He is a person who hasn’t been able to find his place; he is estranged, and in some existential way, represents all of us who sometimes feel that we can’t find our place in the world. The Torah tells us 36 times to be sensitive to the stranger because “you were gerim (strangers) in the land of Egypt”. Zornberg quotes Nahmanides, a commentator from the Middle Ages, who posits that this man wanted to be part of the Hebrew nation but was told “no.” There was nothing he could do to change his parentage; he felt out of options, there being no way he could un-do the circumstances of his birth. He is thus profoundly outraged by the terms of this world, its complete and utter unfairness… and he blasphemes. Maybe understandable, but not something for us to emulate. We must find a better way when life presents us with ultimate limitations.

Lots to think about….

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