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This week's parsha begins with God telling Moses "Emor el ha kohanim" ("Speak to the priests,") to instruct them about the special rules that they must obey. For example, a kohen may not come into contact with a dead person - unless that person was an immediate relative. And the Torah recognizes only six kinds of immediate relationship: a father, mother, brother, unmarried sister, son, daughter. (Not even uncles, aunts, or grandparents make the list, and the High Priest was not permitted to mourn even his own parents!) Our rabbis noted that mourning for these specific relatives is a commandment that applies to all of us. (The rabbis also added husbands and wives to the list). Thus, even today we sit shiva for and say kaddish for 8 relatives – mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives.

The Torah prohibits a kohen from marrying a divorced woman (the High Priest was not even permitted to marry a widow). The chapter ends with a list of physical defects which disqualify a priest or High Priest from performing any sacred function.

The second part of the parsha lists the major holidays and festivals of the Jewish calendar and how they are to be observed: Shabbat - a day of complete rest; the Passover offering and the Lord's Feast of Unleavened Bread; the First Sheaf (of barley); the Counting of the Omer; the celebration of Seven Weeks (i.e., Shavu'ot); a Day of Remembering to be commemorated with loud blasts (i.e., Rosh Hashanah), the Day of Atonement, Sukkot - the Feast of Booths. The chapter also commands us to leave the corners of our fields unharvested to allow the poor and the stranger to find food there. (a repeat from last week’s parsha Kedoshim)

The third part of the parsha contains commandments to Aaron regarding things that should take place at the Tent of Meeting: He must light the lamps with clear olive oil brought by the people, as well as place twelve loaves of bread each Shabbat on a table there as an offering to God. Punishments are described for those who kill or maim people or beasts and for those who take God's name in vain.

There are lots of goodies in this week’s torah portion – the special laws for Kohanim – their requirement to avoid contact with a dead body, the commandment not to shave any part of their heads or make any cuts in their flesh; and who they cannot marry – namely anyone other than a virgin.

The parsha also contains the very novel idea that there is one set of laws for everyone – for the Israelites and stranger alike – which, considering the times, was truly a revolutionary idea. Biblical justice is discussed in this parsha – the famous eye for an eye passage that has likely been one of the most misinterpreted phrases in the bible. We are warned not to kill an animal before it has stayed 7 days with its mother and to never slaughter an animal on the same day with its young. We are told that to serve at the altar, Israelite priests had to be without defects – the blind, the lame, the hunchback, the dwarf, the diseased could not serve. The notion behind this law was that the altar priests should “appear” perfect. It sounds cruel to our 21st century ears – but there is good reason behind this – I’ll touch on that in a moment.

And then suddenly, in the midst of all these laws and admonitions, we have a narrative about an Israelite woman’s son who blasphemed against God and was subsequently stoned to death on the ruling of Moses himself.

THE BLASPHEMER: - Rabbi Maury Grebenau, OU

The Torah itself is very skimpy in terms of the details of what occurred before the actual blasphemy took place. All we are told is that there was another person involved and that the blasphemer was the child of an Egyptian father and a Jewish woman named Shlomit bat Divri. The Midrash fills in some information and Rashi quotes liberally from these details. Two distinct stories emerge from Rashi’s explanations.

One possibility is that the blasphemer was mocking aspects of the Mishkan and another Jew started arguing with him. His reaction was to curse God. The other possibility which emerges is that the blasphemer was trying to pitch his tent in the tribe of Dan since that was his mother’s tribe. Some of the other members of the tribe argued that he had no right to pitch his tent on their land since tribe is paternal. They went to Moshe’s court to decide the matter and when he lost the case he blasphemed God.

How did this situation arise? We again need to look to the Midrash to give us some details of the characters involved. Rashi quotes the Midrash which identifies the father of the blasphemer as the Egyptian that Moshe killed back at the beginning of Shemot. The Midrash tells us that the mother of this blasphemer was flirtatious with one of the Egyptians. He enters her house and sleeps with her while her husband is working and then decides to kill her husband by beating him to death. This is when Moshe enters the picture and instead kills the Egyptian.

The Kli Yakar suggests that the blasphemer may have harbored a grudge against Moshe for his whole life because of this incident. The Midrashic picture seems to be one of a difficult life on the part of the blasphemer. He is born from an affair with a non-Jewish man, his biological father is killed and his mother is known as the one Jewish woman who was not chaste while we were enslaved in Egypt.

Even according to the commentaries which do not follow the Midrashic detail and are satisfied to identify the father as an Egyptian who converted (see Ibn Ezra and Ramban), we still have a child with a difficult upbringing. He comes from a mixed marriage and seems to have difficulty joining the rest of the Jewish people.

We have witnessed an unfortunate blurring of the lines between an explanation and an excuse. In a world where people can be acquitted of crimes by pointing to a difficult childhood, the punishment of the blasphemer seems misplaced. How could we kill such a person? Should we not look the other way when a person with such a difficult upbringing veers from the proper path? Does the Torah not acknowledge that there is ample reason for his behavior? The answer would seem to be that although the blasphemer’s actions can be understood in the context of his life, it remains an explanation and not an excuse. Cursing God is inexcusable even when a person has a difficult past. We must deal compassionately with our fellow and try to understand them.

However, there are still certain limits which can’t be crossed. As Jews we have a tremendous responsibility to God and the ideals of His Torah, irrespective of our personal pasts.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch sees a more insidious motivation for the blasphemer’s actions. He comments that when the Torah calls the blasphemer the son of an Egyptian man, we are being told more than just his father’s nationality. These words are also the motivation behind his sin. He felt that the culture of Judaism was burdensome and he wanted to define himself as the son of an‘ish Mitzri ’. He longed for the permissive Egyptian culture and its decadence. He was the polar opposite of Moshe, who had initially been identified by Yitro’s daughters as an‘ish Mitzri’. Being raised in the Egyptian palace, as Moshe was, Moshe too may have looked the part of an‘ish Mitzri ’. Moshe had distanced himself, in the extreme, from the lifestyle of the Egyptians. This blasphemer longed to return to such a lifestyle. Whether the blasphemer was venting pent up frustration, or if it was a calculated act; it was an inexcusable act. Even in the most difficult of circumstances we are expected to act responsibly and with foresight.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Parsha Emor:

Why are the priests – the Levites and the Kohanim held to a higher standard than Israelites? Why are there special laws just for them – when in fact, our parsha specifically tells us that there is one law for everyone and that all are held to it – in Chapter 24, line 22 we read “Ye shall have one manner of law, as well for the stranger, as for the home born; for I am the Lord your God”. This is such a revolutionary idea – as Hertz writes “In no other code was there one and the same law for native-born and alien alike, Even in Roman law, every alien was originally classed as an enemy, and therefore devoid of any rights. Only gradually was the protection of the law in a limited degree extended to him. “

So here we have a revolutionary idea – that all people in a society are protected by and bounded by the law. And yet – we also have a hierarchy of laws that apply only to those people – the priests who are considered to be at the very top of the society.

At first blush it seemed to me to be a contradiction. And I just LOVE finding contradictions in Torah – they create such wonderful arguments and discussions!

But alas – further study showed me that the priests HAD to be held to a higher standard – after all – they were the protectors of our communal relationship to God – they were, in a way, our representatives and they had to not only inspire the respect of us ordinary folk by embodying the ultimate in every aspect of their behaviour, they had to be accountable to God himself. So that is why the laws concerning the priests – in particular the Kohanim were so stringent. And that is also why they had to be the very essence of perfection – without physical defects, and without any possibility of scandal cast upon them by their choice of wife. Even the behaviour of their daughters had to be pristine – for their daughters were also held to the highest standards to ensure that no aspersion could be cast upon their fathers.

What a contrast this provides with our modern-day leaders! Our leaders are so often the definition of immorality and corruption, of double standards and calamity. The days of holding our leaders to the highest standards are sadly a thing of the distant past.


Let’s look at biblical justice for a moment – the “eye for an eye” concept. According to the commentators and sages, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” was spoken by God as a figurative command in the Hebrew Bible and was never intended to be taken literally. Instead it means that secular justice is to be equitable, neither excessively harsh nor excessively lenient. In this connection there is no reference in Scripture to the maiming of a Hebrew in conformance with “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Also, before God first spoke this, He established with Moses a judicial system to hear claims and determine penalties and that system would not have been necessary if simple “eye for eye” retribution were proper and adequate. Moreover, most actual claims and harms in the Hebrew Bible, except those requiring capital punishment, were settled by payment in goods. The three times where the phrase, "An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth," is mentioned all relate to a civil situation, something occurring within a duly constituted authority: a judge, a magistrate, etc.

According to Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sachs, “Embedded in this week’s parsha are two of the most fundamental commands of Judaism – commands that touch on the very nature of Jewish identity.”

Do not desecrate My holy name. I must be sanctified among the Israelites. I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord.’ (Leviticus 22: 32)

I want to share the complete article with you because for me it expresses the duality of Judaism in a way that is vital to understanding our place in the world. Rabbi Sachs writes:

The two commands are respectively the prohibition against desecrating God’s name, Chillul Hashem, and the positive corollary, Kiddush Hashem, that we are commanded to sanctify God’s name. What are these commands and what do they mean?

First, we have to understand the concept of “name” as it applies to God. a name is how we are known to others. God’s “name” is therefore His standing in the world. Do people acknowledge Him, respect Him, honour Him?

The commands of Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem locate that responsibility in the conduct and fate of the Jewish people. This is what Isaiah meant when he said: “You are my witnesses, says God, that I am God” (Isaiah 43: 10).

The God of Israel is the God of all humanity. He created the universe and life itself. He made all of us – Jew and non-Jew alike – in His image. He cares for all of us: “His tender mercies are on all his works” (Psalm 145: 9).

Yet the God of Israel is radically unlike the gods in which the ancients believed, and the reality in which today’s scientific atheists believe. He is not identical with nature. He created nature. He is not identical with the physical universe. He transcends the universe. He is not capable of being mapped by science: observed, measured, quantified. He is not that kind of thing at all. How then is He known?

The radical claim of Torah is that He is known, not exclusively but primarily, through Jewish history and through the ways Jews live. As Moses says at the end of his life:

Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of God speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? Has any god ever tried to take for himself one nation out of another nation, by testings, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, or by great and awesome deeds, like all the things the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? (Deut. 4: 32-34)

Thirty-three centuries ago, Moses already knew that Jewish history was and would continue to be unique. No other nation has survived such trials. The revelation of God to Israel was unique. No other religion is built on a direct revelation of God to an entire people as happened at Mount Sinai. Therefore God – the God of revelation and redemption – is known to the world through Israel. In ourselves we are testimony to something beyond ourselves. We are God’s ambassadors to the world.

Therefore, when we behave in such a way as to evoke admiration for Judaism as a faith and a way of life, that is a Kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name. When we do the opposite – when we betray that faith and way of life, causing people to have contempt for the God of Israel – that is a Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

That is what Amos means when he says:

They trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground, and deny justice to the oppressed … so desecrate My holy name. (Amos 2: 7)

When Jews behave badly, unethically, unjustly, they create a Chillul Hashem. People say, I cannot respect a religion, or a God, that inspire people to behave in such a way. The same applies on a larger, more international scale. The prophet who never tired of pointing this out was Ezekiel, the man who went into exile to Babylon after the destruction of the First Temple. This is what he hears from God:

I dispersed them among the nations, and they were scattered through the countries; I judged them according to their conduct and their actions. And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, “These are the Lord’s people, and yet they had to leave his land.” (Ezekiel 36: 19)

When Jews are defeated and sent into exile, it is not only a tragedy for them. It is a tragedy for God. He feels like a parent would feel when he sees a child of his disgraced and sent to prison. He feels a sense of shame and worse than that, of inexplicable failure. “How is it that, despite all I did for him, I could not save my child from himself?” When Jews are faithful to their mission, when they live and lead and inspire as Jews, then God’s name is exalted. That is what Isaiah means when he says, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isaiah 49: 3).

That is the logic of Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem. The fate of God’s “name” in the world is dependent on us and how we behave. No nation has ever been given a greater or more fateful responsibility. And it means that we each have a share in this task.

When a Jew, especially a religious Jew, behaves badly – acts unethically in business, or is guilty of sexual abuse, or utters a racist remark, or acts with contempt for others – it reflects badly on all Jews and on Judaism itself. And when a Jew, especially a religious Jew, acts well – develops a reputation for acting honourably in business, or caring for victims of abuse, or showing conspicuous generosity of spirit – not only does it reflect well on Jews. It increases the respect people have for religion in general, and thus for God.

This is how Maimonides puts it in his law code, speaking of Kiddush Hashem:

If a person has been scrupulous in his conduct, gentle in his conversation, pleasant toward his fellow creatures, affable in manner when receiving, not retorting even when affronted, but showing courtesy to all, even to those who treat him with disdain, conducting his business affairs with integrity … And doing more than his duty in all things, while avoiding extremes and exaggerations – such a person has sanctified God.

Rabbi Norman Lamm tells the amusing story of Mendel the waiter. When the news came through to a cruise liner about the daring Israeli raid on Entebbe in 1976, the passengers wanted to pay tribute, in some way, to Israel and the Jewish people. A search was made to see if there was a Jewish member of the crew. Only one could be found: Mendel the waiter. So, at a solemn ceremony, the captain on behalf of the passengers offered his congratulations to Mendel who suddenly found himself elected de facto as the ambassador of the Jewish people. We are all, like it or not, ambassadors of the Jewish people, and how we live, behave and treat others reflects not only on us as individuals but on Jewry as a whole, and thus on Judaism and the God of Israel.

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon ‘em,” wrote Shakespeare in Twelfth Night. Throughout history Jews have had greatness thrust upon them. As the late Milton Himmelfarb wrote: “The number of Jews in the world is smaller than a small statistical error in the Chinese census. Yet we remain bigger than our numbers. Big things seem to happen around us and to us.”

God trusted us enough to make us His ambassadors to an often faithless, brutal world. The choice is ours. Will our lives be a Kiddush Hashem, or God forbid, the opposite? To have done something, even one act in a lifetime, to make someone grateful that there is a God in heaven who inspires people to do good on earth, is perhaps the greatest achievement to which anyone can aspire. Shakespeare rightly defined the challenge: Be not afraid of greatness.

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