D’var Torah for Emor
May 11, 2012
Zachary has done very well this morning. We are certainly proud of him. He studied a long time just to be able to pronounce the Hebrew words just as they were written. He also worked very hard to prepare a highly literate sermonette. He carefully considered each word he was putting to paper, for Zachary thinks, and we strongly believe, that words matter. We believe that words are the building blocks of our reality, that words communicate our thoughts and describe our world. Words are to us of crucial importance.
That is why we decry the laxity in contemporary language and the consequent constant use of four letter words, words that have become so commonplace that the have become devoid of meaning. One uses foul language because one is too inarticulate to describe one’s feelings at the time. Curse words have become the lazy person’s vehicle of choice.
Our Torah portion today, the one from which Zachary read so well, is called “Emor,” which means “Say.” God speaks to Moses and Moses repeats God’s words to the people ofIsrael. There is a particular incident at the end of the parashah that stands out. In Leviticus 24:10, a fight broke out between two Israelites. During the fight, in his apparent anger, one of the Israelites blasphemed God’s name. Moses brought this case before God, for there was not a precedent on how to deal with a blasphemer. God told Moses that the perpetrator should be taken outside the camp and the entire community should stone him to death. God further instructs that anyone, Israelite or stranger, who curses while pronouncing God’s name shall be put to death. Given our modern sensitivities, we are clearly appalled by this harsh punishment for the utterance of a word. Why did our ancestors take this crime so seriously?
Let us first learn about the perpetrator. What do we know about him? We learn that he is of mixed ancestry. His father is Egyptian and his mother is an Israelite. In fact, his mother is named in the text, the only woman in the Book of Leviticus to be named. She is Shlomit, daughter of Dibri. Shlomit, of course, means wholeness. Dibri means “My word.” Her name is not insignificant to the story. The very fact that she is named is quite important. What can we learn from the Hebrew?
“A curious term is used for pronouncing God’s name. In Hebrew it is nokeiv sheim YHVH. The Hebrew root nun-kuf-vet generally means “to pierce” or “to bore” a hole in something. This passage in Leviticus 24 is the only place in the Bible where this word is used to mean “to curse.” What does this root nun-kuf-mean here? Its use suggests that cursing God is an act of violence. The name of God, YHVH is derived from the verb to be. God’s name may mean “The One Who Is” or “The One Who Will Be” or “The One Who is Becoming,” among several possible meanings. In ancient Israel, our ancestors believed that a name partook of the reality it represented. Hence, the blasphemer who tears a hole in the Divine Name tears a hole in the integrity of all that exists, all that the One Who is Being called into being.” By cursing God, the blasphemer devastated part of the reality that God brought into being with words. The son of Shlomit bat Dibri shattered the wholeness of creation with a word. With one word, the blasphemer crushed one of the building blocks of creation. Now we understand why our ancestors took this crime so seriously. When one cursed God, one pierced God’s creation.
While we do not want to return to executing blasphemers, we realize that something precious is lost to us when we are not careful with the words we use. Words have the power to make and unmake, to create and destroy, to form and unform. The lesson we learn today will hopefully cause us to take our choice of words more seriously, so that we think before we speak. Words form the building blocks of existence. We would like our words to always create shalom, peace, rather than destroy it.
Amen and Shabbat shalom
 Ten Minutes of Torah, May 9, 2009