“On Being an Example”
By Rabbi Elisheva Beyer, ‘06
“And you shall not desecrate My Holy Name; And I shall be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel; I am Hashem Who sanctifies you.” (Vayikra 22:32).
Parshat “Emor” (which translates as “speak”) describes a blasphemer who is stoned to death for his contemptible words. Torah does not record his name nor his father’s name. His parents were Shlomit bat Divri, a Jewess, and his father was Egyptian. According to midrash, his father was that same Egyptian overseer who was thrashing a Hebrew slave. When Moses saw, he struck the Egyptian dead and then Moses had to leave Egypt.
The Sages draw on his parentage as an example as to how he came to be a blasphemer. His mother talked too much and his father was a cruel man. They find that his nature and his environment contributed to his cruel use of words of blasphemy.
What is blasphemy? It is showing a lack of reverence for G-d, and includes insulting or showing contempt for holy persons or things. Midrash records that the blasphemer ridiculed Moses’ teaching about the show bread. In another version, he was refused admittance to live with the tribe of Dan, his mother’s tribe. Since tribal membership follows the father, Moses’ court ruled against him, and then he cursed.
As a result of his ridiculing or cursing, the blasphemer was taken outside the camp, hands were laid upon his head by any witness who heard the blasphemy. He was told that he was “responsible for having brought the penalty upon himself.” (Rashi). The people who heard the blasphemy rent their clothes, then the blasphemer was stoned. Certainly, this was harsh punishment for what we, in today’s society would consider “mere words.”
The Sages of the Talmud find that one sin is so serious that only death can pay for its transgression. Yoma 86a. That is chillul Hashem (desecration of the Name of G-d). In the case of the blasphemer, he paid the ultimate price for his remark. In Jewish tradition, speech is critically important. The blasphemer’s scoffing, scornful comments resulted in his death. Indeed, Talmud says that these will not merit the Divine Presence: scoffers, liars, flatters, and slanderers. Sotah 42a.
Most of the time, when one is genuinely sorry and repents, G-d will forgive. For some serious sins, repentance suspends the punishment and Yom Kippur atones. For worse sins, Yom Kippur suspends punishment and only suffering atones. However, for desecration of G-d’s name, even suffering does not fix it, only “death absolves” for it.
What does it mean to desecrate G-d’s Name? Talmud provides several examples. Rav says, “If I take meat from the butcher and do not pay him immediately” that is chillul Hashem. The Sages explain that since Rav is a known Torah scholar, a higher standard of behavior is expected of him. He is responsible to attend to the details of his relationships with people. He must be aware of how his example will potentially affect others and how not paying for even a short time would set a poor example.
Knowing the proper path and following it are key. The more one knows, the more responsible one is to be scrupulous in one’s words. Especially important is integrity, honesty and being compassionate to people.
For those tasked with leading a sacred community, the responsibility is even greater. Acting so as to cause G-d’s great name to be sanctified is sanctifying G-d’s Name (Kiddush Hashem). Striving to be ethical and walking the path toward the Almighty requires strength, courage, reverence and perseverance.