A Desperate Cry for Help
Rabbi Charles Savenor
At the end of Parshat Emor, we encounter one of the rare narrative selections in the entire book of Vayikra, which is essentially a handbook for the kohanim, focusing on issues of holiness and purity for the entire Israelite nation. The Torah turns its attention away from sacrificial rituals and tabernacle and tells us a tale of blasphemy. The text reads:
"The son of an Israelite woman went out - and he was the son of an Egyptian man - among the Children of Israel; they fought in the camp, this son of an Israelite woman with an Israelite man. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name of God and blasphemed, so they brought him to Moses..." (Lev. 24:10-11)
The fate of this blasphemer is death by stoning by the hands of those who heard his unthinkable, irreverent words.
The story in the Torah constitutes a scanty sketch of what transpired between this man, who happens to be the product of a mixed marriage, and his argument with another Jew. All we know for certain is that this man "pronounced the name of God," and for this he deserved to die. But what, we may ask, is so bad about invoking the name of God? We invite God's presence into our world every time we recite a blessing at home and in the synagogue. What, then, did this guy do wrong?
Almost immediately we are reminded of the Ten Commandments. "You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain, for God will not absolve anyone who takes God's name in vain." (Exodus 20:7)
The simple meaning of this third of the Ten Commandments, according to the medieval sage Ramban, forbids human beings even to mention God's name in any unnecessary way. This interpretation serves the basis for refraining from not only using God's name in meaningless curses, such as "For God's sake," but also writing God's full name in English and Hebrew. In light of this commandment, Jews have adopted the practice of calling God "Hashem," which literally translates in Hebrew as "the Name." Equally important, this verse anchors textually the prohibition of "berakhah levatalah," blessings or prayers recited unnecessarily or at the wrong times.
Sages in the Talmud, Tractate Shevuot (Oaths), connect this verse with taking oaths, and particularly with the prohibition in Leviticus 19:12 "Thou shall not swear falsely by My name." In their eyes, this verse deals with swearing falsely while giving testimony or taking an oath using the name of God.
According to the former interpretation, God's presence is invited without purpose, similar to calling an attendant to serve our whims. The latter describes dishonest humans who link God's credibility with falsehood, thereby tarnishing God's reputation. This is truly the opposite of the "halo effect." What both cases share in common is that God becomes an object of man's whims and schemes respectively. Borrowing the language of Martin Buber, the blasphemer transforms God from a "Thou" into an "It," an object to be used and manipulated.
These two interpretations prepare us for God's unequivocal response to the blasphemer, namely that s/he will be punished with death! In Biblical Literacy, Joseph Telushkin attempts to explain why so harsh a punishment for such a seemingly simple transgression. He asserts that "If a person acts in a disreputable manner, that individual brings him- or herself alone into disrepute. But if one acts in a disreputable manner ... in the name of God, such a person alienates people not only from himself, but from God as well." In Telushkin's eyes, this transgression makes God a victim.
Blasphemy also puts the community at risk by giving the impression that God is a tool or force that man can control. That Adam in the Garden of Eden could give a name to every creature found therein signifies his mastery and control over the animal kingdom. The fact that humans cannot even say God's name without sufficient reason teaches that our control does not extend to the heavenly kingdom.
The Ten Commandments buttress what we learn in Parashat Emor, that the Torah prohibits human beings to use the Lord's name in vain. But the man in our story goes one step further. He pronounces God's name in the special way only to be used for holy purposes. In form as well as in function, the son of the Israelite woman crosses an important line.
However, let's try to understand what motivates this man to transgress. The rabbis in the Midrash focus their investigation of this question on the first word in the verse above, Leviticus 24:10. The verse begins "Vayaytsay," which means "he left" or "he went out," referring to his tent.
Rabbi Hiyya explains that in light of his lineage on his mother's side, this man, the product of an mixed union, aspires to camp within the tribe of Dan. However, he is refused because while Jewishness is passed through the mother, camping rights, according to Numbers 2:2, are passed through the father. After getting the run-around, he appeals to Moses and the court and his request is ultimately refused. Upon "leaving" the tent of justice, he curses God and utters his blasphemous words.
By contrast, Rabbi Levi purports that this man's leaving refers not to a physical action, but a spiritual consequence. Due to his verbal transgression, this man "left," or forfeited, his portion in the World to Come.
Blasphemy can sometimes be attributed to losing one's faith. In this case, we are reminded of Elisha ben Abuyeh, the Talmudic rabbi who becomes an apostate. Moreover, in our post-holocaust world with infinite questions, it is easy for us to get wrapped up in philosophical and theological quandaries.
While our traditional sources offer us insight into this issue, an alternative understanding can be discovered when we dig deeper into the soul of the alleged transgressor. The man in our story clearly is an outsider. He feels disconnected, like he was been abandoned in Israel. The son of a mixed marriage, he finds obstacles barring his attempt to find a home among the Israelite people. In this case, his "leaving" is not a verb, but a description of his state of mind. Rather than being the man in the act of leaving, he is the "left out" man.
Was the man in our Torah portion motivated by a lack of faith or unconquerable theological questions? No, I believe that the man in our portion invokes the name of God for help. In the ancient world and even today, merely to mention God's name represents a spiritual experience, inviting the divine into our corner of the world. In addition, the pronunciation of God's actual name is a vehicle to get God's attention. This despondent individual calls upon God at a time of need because he believes that God will listen. This man, who knew little of Torah tradition, may have even gone as far as using the special pronunciation of God's name to show that he is "in the know." Perhaps the "left out" man purposely reaches out and cries out for God by formally pronouncing the divine name to be connected, without any understanding that his actions carry grave and lethal consequences.
Unfortunately there are too many "left out" Jews today. Our challenge in the modern world is how to reach those who feel far away and spiritually-disconnected. To those who feel "left out," we can simply welcome them back in. We can invite him/her to our Shabbat tables and minyanim. Equally important, we can engage him/her about the meaning and the sanctity of every letter and word of the Torah, beginning with the name of God.