Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Walk Article-Emor



Rabbi David Walk


            Each of the five books in our Torah has a different style and character.  The book of Genesis is entirely narrative or stories, and even the couple of mitzvoth mixed in have a story attached to them.  Exodus, on the other hand, is essentially all narrative until half way through when we switch to all legal material.  Then we have Leviticus which is basically all laws, and the book of Numbers is the most interesting in that the stories are interspersed with laws.  Finally, Deuteronomy is the hardest to classify because it is the farewell address of commander and king, Moshe.  So, it is a cause for concern and consternation in this week's parsha when we have one of the two stories in the entire book of Leviticus, and neither is very happy except for the pro-execution lobby. 

            Back in chapter ten we have the difficult episode of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aharon who are summarily executed by God for bringing a strange fire into the newly minted Mishkan.  This week we have the equally strange story of the blasphemer.  Here's the entire text:  Now the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the Israelites, and he and a man of Israel quarreled and strove together in the camp.  The Israelite woman's son blasphemed the Name of the Lord and cursed. They brought him to Moses—his mother was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.  And they put him in custody until the will of the Lord might be declared to them. And the Lord said to Moses, Bring him who has cursed out of the camp, and let all who heard him lay their hands upon his head; then let all the congregation stone him to death (Leviticus 24:10-14).  So, there are two issues which must be addressed.  The first is to try to understand the incident of the blasphemer and his crime.  The other, and I believe bigger, question is why are these the only stories in the entire book of Leviticus.

            There are many attempts to explain the sin of the blasphemer.  Most revolve around his lineage, namely a Jewish mother and an Egyptian father.  He may have found himself estranged from society and therefore lashed out at God and the religion.  He had a fight within the community which is not described in the text.  Many say that he strove to receive a portion of land in Israel, and was denied by the courts.  This brought him into conflict with the other members of the tribe.  Apparently this frustration boiled over into an attack on God for the unfairness of the decision and of his life.  In the desert he could have done what other disenfranchised individuals did, namely approach Moshe for Divine dispensation.  The approach worked on at least three occasions.  But his rage and frustration got the better of him.  He lashed out at God and man by publicly profaning the holiest Name of God.  What a sad development.

            Putting this disturbing incident into proper context is our next and more difficult assignment.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently came out with his volume of essays on the book of Leviticus.  On the cover he subtitles Leviticus as The Book of Holiness.   And, of course, this is true.  This third volume of the Torah, I believe, develops a theory of holiness.  The early sections of the book present the obvious issues of holiness, namely the Temple and the offerings.  As the book goes on it spreads the scope of holiness into other areas.  Amongst other things it democratizes holiness to include humans.  The most majestic statements in the book are mostly huddled in chapter nineteen when it discusses the treatment of other human beings.  Its lofty goal envisions us seeing the sanctity in everyone around us, and demands behavior which recognizes this reality and enforces it.  This is true whether the other is superior or inferior in the hierarchy of society.  Rabbi Akiva eventually will proclaim this demand of equal treatment for all to be the central rule of our Torah.

            In the structured realm of sanctity which existed in the Temple precinct and is presented towards the beginning of the book, what is the worst possible crime?  Well, I think that it would be the break down of this organized system, and turn Divine service into a free for all of individual actions.  The Temple, perhaps uniquely, didn't leave much room for personal expression or initiative.  The connection and communication with the holy realms is presented as a highly organized arrangement of practices.  This brings us to the crime of Nadav and Avihu.  Although there are many interpretations of their offense, the clearest is the way it is presented in the verse itself.  They brought an offering which was not commanded by God.  They brought a strange and alien fire into this highly structured domain.  Disaster was inevitable.

            The continuation of our Book of Holiness describes how sanctity extends beyond the walls of the Temple into interpersonal relations, marriage, and even our daily encounters with each other.  Holiness can also be seen in the dimension of time.  But the greatest purveyor of sanctity into the world is the human being.  How do humans project this holiness?  Chapters eighteen through twenty make it abundantly clear, that the power emanates from the recognition of God as our Lord.  It seems that every other verse in those sections demands us to recognize and revere God.  When we establish that connection to God then we can go about the job of spreading holiness abroad in our world.  Our blasphemer fought this reality.  His public cursing of God was an announcement that God is not a factor in our environment.  He declared that we do not manifest Godliness and, therefore, sanctity into our world.

             Now we can understand why these are the two stories which make their way into the book of Leviticus.  Each in its own way warns us to keep the message of our volume.  Maintain Godliness in our world, according to the demands of every circumstance.