temple emanu-el
top border
Torah Commentary
Emor (May 3, 2014)

Sherry Nehmer,

I HAVE AN UNHEALTHY FASCINATION with the movie The Ten Commandments. As a piece of filmmaking it’s ponderous: The acting is over-the-top, and it takes itself very, very seriously in the way of all 1950s epics. But still, it’s entertaining, and every time it’s shown on TV, I manage to catch at least part of it.

This year I caught the Golden Calf sequence in which troublemaker Edward G. Robinson (“Where’s your Messiah now, Moses?”) incites the Israelites to worship an idol and then to whip themselves into a frenzy of debauchery; the visuals of whirling, demonic lust are worthy of a Bosch painting. Into this vividly appalling scene comes Moses, returning with God’s Ten Commandments, only to find both decorum and faith shattered. What is the punishment for this disobedience? Will God wipe out the Israelites?

No. Moses intercedes with God on behalf of his guilty flock, and so the punishment is the temporary denial of God’s commandments and 40 years of wandering the desert. The Israelites are guilty before God and not worthy of His presence, and the entire adult population must die out before the Israelites can reach the Promised Land. Harsh, indeed. But there is no flood to wipe out the transgressors, no purge by Divine fire, and although the main participants are disposed of, Moses’ brother, Aaron — who must have had an active part in the blasphemy — is left unscathed, as the High Priest of the Israelites. So many were complicit in this betrayal of God...and yet the vast majority do not pay immediately with their lives.

What does this have to do with this week’s portion Emor?

Emor is a long, detailed chapter, one packed with rules and regulations and the setting of special occasions and observances. The rules are laid out in scrupulous detail regarding priestly purity, ritual behavior and the making of sacrifices by laymen. It also is the “calendar” chapter, one that sets the fixed times of sacred events such as the Day of Atonement and Sukkot (this is a section of particular interest to those of us who as temple administrators keep the daily calendar), and which emphasizes the importance of maintaining the Sabbath. Also in Emor we find the famous “eye for an eye” decree and the measured opinion that “one who kills a beast shall make restitution for it, but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.” Important stuff indeed.

Emor is a manual for the times, and God is in full Emily Post mode. But His rules are more than simple etiquette lessons — they are directives that carry life or death consequences. Some of the rules may seem arcane and irrelevant to us: Don’t try to pass off your weakling calf or blemished goat by using it for a sacrifice; a man with a broken leg may not offer a sacrifice; anyone with the slightest deformity may not become a priest. Likewise, if you’re not a priest, then don’t eat the sacred offerings; if you are a priest, then marry a virgin only. Others are chillingly brutal: If the daughter of a priest commits adultery, then it’s a reflection on her father’s purity, and she must be put to the fire. Infractions carry an ominous warning: I am the LORD, says God. They shall keep My charge, lest they incur guilt thereby and die for It, having committed profanation: I the LORD consecrate them.

As varied as these parts may be, there is a uniting theme of purity throughout: You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people — I the LORD who sanctify you, I who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the LORD. Remember Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron who brought “alien fire” to the Tabernacle? Purity is essential in your dealings with God, and if you disobey, you may die.

But can this demand for respect and purity be taken too far? At long last, Emor brings itself to a close with the incident of a fight between an Israelite and another man who is “among the Israelites” but whose father was an Egyptian. This half-Israelite man, apparently in the midst of his fight “pronounces the Name in blasphemy” and is taken to Moses. The punishment, direct from God Himself, is that the half-Israelite man is to be taken from their encampment, and everyone who heard his blasphemous utterance must lay their hands upon his head. And finally the whole community must stone him to death.

Is the idea that his presence would sully the rest of the Israelites if the sentence were carried out within the encampment? Probably. Throughout the Torah we read that those with physical sickness must separate themselves from the community, and this man is no less “sick,” although his illness is an impurity of the soul. When those who heard his utterance lay hands on his head, they are in effect transferring back to him the impurity he infected them with, much like the scapegoat a few chapters back that was given the community’s sins and sent to the wilderness. And yet I find myself asking why, if the Israelites as a whole were spared after actively worshiping the Golden Calf and defiling themselves while they were at it, can’t this person be given exile rather than death? Why doesn’t Moses intercede here?

For me this incident is a disturbing one. Clearly the punishment is meant as an object lesson to others. Perhaps, as Rashi and other commentators suggest, this man may never have been considered fully part of the Israelite tribes, despite his Jewish mother. Maybe the person he fought had it in for him over an earlier confrontation. Perhaps he was just an easy target, marginalized by the community for his Egyptian father. Was the fix in? Why is it important that we know he was only a half-Israelite? Was he, perhaps, not Jewish enough?

Rules and regulations have their place — they are important if we mean to exist as a society. But this is the lesson I take away from Emor: Let rules guide us, but let’s not make them obstacles to living or the means by which we hurt others. We are responsible for our actions, and the words we say have the power to hurt. Whether or not we are in a synagogue pew or working out or sitting behind a desk, it behooves us to live our lives mindful of respecting others and ourselves, as well as how we respect God. Let’s not infect others with the destructive power of negativity.

And let us also be tolerant of those who may not be just like us, whose origins or beliefs are different from ours, who seemingly may not live up to whatever rules or standards we set for ourselves. That starts with not judging others for who they are or for what choices they make. Aim for purity if you will, and follow the rules that you set for yourself, but to demand that others do the same is a pointless undertaking, one that may have cruel results.

Those are the kind of rules I want to follow and the kind of purity, if you will, I’d like to attain. I have no desire to wander the desert of intolerance for the next 40 years.

Join the conversation and post your thoughts »

Back to Torah Study
photo of temple
One East 65th St., New York, New York 10065. Phone  212-744-1400
One East 65th Street, New York, NY 10065    (212) 744-1400 horizontal rule Member Log In | Calendar | Site Map | Contact Us | Text Size [+] [-]