By Bettijane Eisenpreis
There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses – now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan – and he was placed in custody until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. ~ Leviticus 24:10-14
There aren’t a lot of stories in the book of Leviticus. Mostly, the book is a list of laws, but when we do get a story, it’s a doozy! Two men get into a fight; heated words are exchanged, and then one of the men takes the name of the Lord in vain, in explicit violation of the Third Commandment. He is immediately taken into custody and sentenced to death – not because he got into a fight (we don’t even know who started it or if anyone got hurt) but because he took the name of the Lord in vain.
The manner in which the punishment is carried out is remarkable. The whole community has the responsibility of killing the sinner by stoning. God says to Moses: “And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; if he also pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death.”
So terrible was the punishment that the fear of pronouncing God’s name has persisted right up to the present day. The Hebrew letters Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh are printed in Bibles and prayer books as a substitute for the name of God. Many Orthodox Jews use the shorthand G-d, although the English word God is not the true name of the Diety. If we look at the Ten Commandments, it becomes apparent why taking the Lord’s name in vain is a serious crime. The first two commandments establish the fact that the Lord is God and the people Israel should “have no other gods before Me.” These two commandments are the very basis for the rest, so reverence for God is of paramount importance.
In addition to the gravity of the sin, we are told that the sinner is not a bona fide part of the community. His mother, Shelomith daughter of Dibri, is an Israelite but his father was a nameless Egyptian. One wonders if the blasphemer is given a harsher punishment because he is only half Israelite. Could this be the power of privilege at work, one of the perks of being Chosen?
While the third commandment has traditionally been a scary one, you wouldn’t know it if you were taking the 23rd Street crosstown at 3:30 PM on a school day. There, the name of the Lord gets bandied about by the junior high school crowd as if it were a school cheer. But when I was growing up – and for generations before that – using the name of God in an irreverent manner was a serious matter. Within living memory, children committing this sin got their mouths washed out with soap. The poor guy in Parashat Emor would have welcomed such a mild punishment; he paid with his life. Suffice it to say that the story of this man who lost his life for pronouncing the name of God in vain is a complex one and gives us plenty of food for thought.