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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Implementing the Communal Will of a Holy People

by Rabbi Yossi Ben Harush (Posted on May 16, 2024)
Topics: Emor, Sefer Vayikra, Torah

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Parashat Emor concludes with an apparent non sequitur: After delving into the laws of priests and the sanctuary, and describing the festivals celebrated in the Mishkan, the Torah tells us about a dispute between two individuals from the Israelite camp, leading one to curse the other in God’s name.

Rashi, citing the Sifra, explains that the blasphemer “uttered the unique and special Name, the explicit Name that he heard at Sinai.” In other words, the blasphemer takes advantage of the great privilege of having heard the Explicit Name and exploits it, in this case to curse his fellow Israelite.

This act shocks the Israelite camp, and the man is sent outside the camp to await his fate. Moses turns to God, and God instructs Moses to punish the blasphemer, while also adding further laws dealing with damages claims between individuals.

Shmuel David Luzzatto (Shadal), a 19th-century Italian rabbi, theologian, philosopher, linguist, biblical commentator, poet, and translator, poses the following question/assertion: “And until now, there has not been any command regarding blasphemy, since the previous statement (אלוקים לא תקלל) is referring to the judges.” Shadal means that nowhere before the story of the blasphemer is there an explicit prohibition against cursing in God’s name. The one potentially relevant prohibition “אלוקים לא תקלל” (Exodus 22:27) refers to the prohibition of cursing a judge.

In light of Shadal’s observation, one may ask: What motivated the Israelites to send the man outside the camp? Surely the Israelites knew that there was no explicit prohibition, and therefore might have considered the blasphemer’s act at least permissible?

Shadal responds:

It is inconceivable that an Israelite would curse the Name, and the Torah would never have warned against this had it not been for the incident that occurred when an Egyptian man committed this abomination…

In Shadal’s view, the moment the curse left the blasphemer’s mouth, the entire people understood that something terrible had happened that required special attention and probably punishment. Had it not been for that blasphemer uttering the curse, the Torah would not have bothered to warn and attach a punishment to the warning – after all, such a thing is inconceivable! By sending the blasphemer outside the camp, the Israelites created a new reality that led to the establishment of a punishment for blasphemy.

Shadal goes on to ask another question: Why does the Torah attach the story of the blasphemer to the priestly matters mentioned in Parashat Emor? According to Shadal:

After completing the commandments that are for the honor of His Name (sacrifices, festivals, and the laws of the priests), he ended with the punishment of the blasphemer of the Name, the extreme opposite of all that has been commanded so far.

In other words, the Torah attempts to paint a picture of holiness with details and precision for each and every Israelite, and cursing God is the antithesis of the holy world that the Torah presents in the book of Vayikra and Parashat Emor in particular. The Israelites feel this dissonance and seek to resolve the crisis: How can someone hear God’s teaching of holiness through Moses and then use the Name as a curse? Therefore, they expel the blasphemer. This allows the community to consider what it must do and ask God to help build another layer of commandment to reflect the communal will. God responds, and a solution to the crisis is created, established for generations to come in the Torah.

In my opinion, Shadal’s interpretation of the story of the blasphemer highlights an important pillar in ‘עבודת ה and in the importance of community. Sometimes the community feels that something has happened that deserves attention, even in the absence of an explicit mitzvah. In a sense, in parashat Emor the Israelites added a Halacha to the Torah. The essence of their community and close connection to God, who cannot tolerate the cursing of His Name, manifested in a new layer of biblical halacha.

In this view, the Israelites’ expression of communal values also expresses God’s will and reveals new facets of the Torah. The Israelites’ initiative closes a gap in the divine command: from now on, one who curses God will be punished.

The eternal nature of the Torah obliges us to examine our communities and determine whether there are genuine desires they express that require our sincere consideration. Does our community express a particular desire or unease that we need to understand and listen to? What is the balance between leading our community and our commitment to halacha and the communal desire to change or add a layer?

A few months ago, I visited the West Coast. In my conversations with people, I was frequently asked about the recommended ways to fight wars in the future, about Israeli politics, and about the grave rift in Israeli society.

I gave everyone the same answer: Know that for many Israeli citizens, these issues are not at all at the forefront of their minds. The communal desire of many Israelis is simply to stand united. To comfort the mourners. To visit and cheer the wounded. And to feel the unity that was forced upon us but helps us cope. This unity was not imposed upon us from above as a law or commandment. It is a communal sentiment that has arisen among the citizens of Israel. And this sentiment adds an important layer to the world of emotions and feelings of the citizens of Israel. And in addition, according to my analysis of Shadal’s interpretation, it also adds an important layer to our ‘עבודת ה. We must not ignore this inspiring communal sentiment, but instead understand how it adds an important dimension to the community, to every individual and to the service of God in general.

 בשורות טובות, ישועות ונחמות.

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