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Rav Yehoshua Kahan

Parashat Emor concludes with one of the only narrative passages in all of Chumash Vayikra – the story of the man who blasphemes. Although the account is brief, it must be of critical importance, for otherwise, why interrupt the halachic flow of Vayikra, a Chumash suspended in time with almost no dateable events, to tell us about a single foul-mouthed boor? So, let’s turn our attention to the concluding few verses of the parashah, and work backwards from there.


“He went out, the son of an Israelite woman, he being the son of an Egyptian man, into the midst of the sons of Israel, and they quarreled in the camp, the some of the Israelite (woman) and an Israelite man. The son of the Israelite woman expressed specifically THE NAME and cursed, and they brought him to Moshe. The name of his mother – “Hello” daughter of “Speak!” (a stylized literal rendering of the Hebrew: Shelomit bat Divri) of the tribe of Dan. They place him under guard, to (have the situation) explained to them by the mouth of Hashem.”

What follows is the Divine word to Moshe, instructing him to have the man put to death for his blasphemy, and indicating the penalty for other crimes – all of which are cases of smiting/striking, whether animal or person, whether the result is killing or injury (called here a blemish).

Several questions arise regarding the Mekalel, as the blasphemer is referred to in the Torah. First, whence did he go out? He actually doesn’t exit, but rather, enters into the midst of the camp of Israel, so what is meant when the account begins with the word, “he went out”? A number of answers are given in the Talmud, the one which I find most intriguing: “he went out of his world/eternity”.

Literally, this is referring to the preceding passage, which describes one of the perks of the Kohanim – they get to eat the “Lechem Hapanim” – the Bread of Presence – that rests on the golden table in the sanctuary of the Tabernacle in the desert (and subsequently, in the Temple in Jerusalem) before it is distributed, still warm and fresh, a week later. The bread is described as “holy of holies”, as it is one of Hashem’s sacrificial offerings, and the privilege of eating it is a “hok olam” – an eternal decree.

O.K., so the last word preceding the account of the Mekalel is “eternal”, but still, how does that help us understand the explanation, “he came out of his ‘eternity’”? Did he bolt from inside the sanctuary, after being denied a fresh piece of the Bread of Presence, run into the midst of the camp and scream, “Gevalt!!”?

Almost. Because our Sages tell us that this man, lacking a Jewish father, though Jewish, was tribeless, and therefore was quarrelling about where – that is, with whom – he should rightfully pitch his tent. When the dispute heated up – and perhaps blows were exchanged, since subsequently we read of the punishment for inflicting a blemish – the Mekalal lashed out in all his humiliation and all his fury – against Hashem.

What precisely did he do to Hashem? He punctured the Name. The fundamental meaning of the root N-K-V, translated above as “expressed specifically”, means “puncture”, “penetrate”. And, having punctured the protective sheath of fear and trembling which guards the sanctity of the Name, he reamed it out – the root K-L-L, translated above as “he blasphemed” actually means, “he made light, insubstantial”. The Holy Divine Name was “shown” as empty, insubstantial, meaningless.

What an ironic twist. Here this poor chap, jealous of his pedigreed fellow Jews, wanting to also taste the Eternity of the Presence viscerally, desperate to find his place, if not among the Kohanim, then somewhere, and, suddenly, he jettisons the whole enterprise.

“It’s his mom’s fault!!” That’s what the Midrashic tradition might seem to imply, when it interprets her names as implying too much fraternization with all sorts of passers-by. But even if we don’t go there, we can understand how deleterious being raised in an environment where speech is cheapened, emptied of its substance. When the instrument of deepest connection to the other is reduced to mere chatter and empty banter, the result is a blemished sense of the Other, an inflated notion of entitlement and NO trepidation before the Holy.

Our parashat begins with an unusually twist on a familiar introductory formula: “Vayomer Hashem el Moshe, emor el hakohanim b’nei Aharon vayomer aleihem” – Hashem said to Moshe, “say to the the Kohahim, sons of Aharon, and say to them, {“let no one (who is a Kohen) make himself impure amongst his kin’”}.

This standard introductory formula almost always used daber (“speak”) instead of emor (“say”). First the act of speech, then the content. “Speaking” is considering harsher, more impactful, than “saying”. But why the change the formula here? Rashi, quoting a passage in the Gemara (Yevamot 114a), explains: “to warn the adults regarding the minors”. That is, Kohanim may not render their children impure with their own hands, even though the children themselves may not yet be subject to the mitzvot for which impurity is an impediment.

Now: impurity – tum’ah – is a halachic category. If there is no halachic consequence to the tum’ah for the minor, why should it matter whether he, though he be a Kohen, be tame’? True, he might render others impure, but Rashi’s comment is, “to warn adults regarding minors”! Clearly, the concern is for the minor himself! For when an adult is speaking, experience, the feel of that act of speech often pre-empts, for the child, what it is that is being said. In order to make sure a child is not blemished inside, in a way that may not be manifest for years but is all the more insidious for its long latency, the Kohanim, who bless with their speech and utter the Divine Name, must transmit that content through an attitude toward speech in which holiness comes through in both utterance and message. The parent must model this to the child – this is the inner essence of the oral tradition, the sense in which the whole Torah is names of the Divine.

The opposite of Mekalel, one who curses and makes light of something, is Mechabed, one who imparts weight, substance, one who honors. In a world in which delight is taken in letting the air out of all things of standing and substance, by running them through with the blade of our flightiness and dismissiveness, let us speak encouragingly to the child inside us all of the potential for purity, of our true eternity – that is, our inherent role as guardians of the sacred, and of that delicious, still-warm, nourishment of Presence that, though it abide the long, long week in the recesses of our inconsequence, will melt on the praising tongues of our patient, expanding awareness of the Holy.

(Rav Yehoshua Kahan serves as System Administrator for a fintech company after spending many years teaching Torah in various educational settings in Israel and the United States)


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