Emor – The Power of Words to Hurt or Heal

There is a startling story at the end of this Torah portion.  A half-Israelite gets in a fight with an Israelite, blasphemes the name of […]

There is a startling story at the end of this Torah portion.  A half-Israelite gets in a fight with an Israelite, blasphemes the name of God, and is stoned to death by the community.

We read the story and questions flood in to us:  Why did this happen?  What does it mean to blaspheme the Lord? What are the implications of the man’s actions? Why is there such a severe punishment?

Traditional commentary addresses these questions, but it also does something else.  It explores what leads up to the event.  Midrash fills in the gaps and expands the story while asking other questions: What was the context?  Could the fight have been avoided? What crucial lessons do we learn about the negative parts of our humanity?

Listen to the episode and think about how each detail in Leviticus 24:10-14 might reveal lessons about how to live life: “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 the half-Israelite and a certain Israelite.  The son of the Israelite woman 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,” and that is what they did.  It is a chilling story whose details help us paint a fuller picture.

One Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 32:3) picks up on the man being a half-Israelite and his mother from the tribe of Dan and imagines him trying to pitch his tent in the area allotted to this tribe.  The Midrash has the people of the tribe turning him away.  We can picture the scene: “You aren’t a member of this tribe. You cannot pitch your tent here!” And when he shared that his mother was from the same tribe, they responded, “Oh no!  Tribal membership comes through the father, and your father was Egyptian. Go away!”  The Midrash focuses not on the act of blasphemy, but on what led to the outburst.  The man was rejected and hurt.  Out of frustration and anger, he strikes out and curses God. While it does not excuse his words or actions, this explanation teaches us that this anger has a source.  The Midrash asks us to think about how we exclude, reject, label and fail to see people in their humanity or their whole story.  It asks to think about how this tragedy might have been avoided by kindness, compassion and acceptance.

The Midrash delves deeper into the story and gives us more details.  It shares that the man brought the case to the courts and was rebuffed.  The court confirmed that, by law, tribal identity indeed follows the father’s line, and then ruled against the man.  Interpreting the line at the beginning of the story Va’yeitze – he went out – Rashi cites the Midrash saying, “He went out from his world of Judaism.”  He felt so rejected and hurt that he left our people.  The Midrash then asks us to look at ourselves.  Is our rigid application of law pushing others away?  Are we seeing the full story before coming to judgement?  Can we see the pain our actions cause others?  The court ruling only saw the rules and not the human.   Too often we jump to the rules and don’t see the person in front of us.  Proximity changes everything and the Midrash focuses our attention on the fact no one saw or cared for this man.  His actions stemmed from deep pain.  This lesson is seen every day in so many situations, asking that we act with compassion and open our hearts to listen and embrace.

And Midrash and commentary delve into other lessons revealed from the details.  Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi looks at the man’s reaction and teaches that this story makes us aware of how anger impacts us.  Rabbi Eliezer points out that contrary to Midrash, which gives a reason for the dispute (pitching the tent in the land associated with his mother’s tribe), the Torah itself does not tell us what the fight was about because, according to Rabbi Ashkenazi, the reason was not important.  What was important is that the reaction that came from anger unleashed was actually worse than what caused it.  We know this.  I imagine everyone here can think of a moment where your anger was just, but how you showed your anger made it about your response rather than about the thing that angered you.   Some of the moments that I most regret have been moments like that.  While I had every right to be upset, once angry words or actions came pouring out, it made the situation even worse.  People won’t remember the act which led to the outburst; they will remember the outburst.  And from there, the consequences ripple, lost reputation, lost friendships, and escalating responses.

The half Israelite man, like most of us, needed to learn the lesson that how we respond to hurt makes all the difference in the world.  The Midrash teaches us to think before we react.  Professor Josh Berman teaches Bible at Bar Ilan University.  He wrote a beautiful article about one time when he wrote an article on a controversial topic and the responses to it that he received were painful: insults, scorn, public ridicule and mischaracterizations.  He was hurt and angry.  He knew that lashing out would only worsen the situation but didn’t know what to do with the anger.  So he turned to a mentor, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory, and Rabbi Sacks gave extraordinary advice.

Rabbi Sacks said, “First, you have to know that every time this happens, it will hurt.”  I wonder how the story would have changed if there had been someone to teach the half-Israelite that we deal with life’s hurts by acknowledging and feeling them. We give voice to our pain rather than burying or denying it.  Hurt is there and real.  When we lift up that pain, the anger and hurt will not explode.

Then Rabbi Sacks taught that we need to know that, whatever the hurt, it will pass and, in fact, make us stronger.  This is hard to remember when we are about to blow up.  It is also true that, as we pass through life’s difficult moments, we have the potential to grow and learn that we are resilient and strong.

Third, Rabbi Sacks taught Professor Berman that pain inflicted on us is usually not about us; it is often about the things for which we stand.  The half-Israelite needed to reflect that his desire for inclusion threatened close-minded people who only see the world in limited ways.  Fear causes people to exclude and push away those who are different.  The half-Israelite needed to know it was not about him; it was about the other person. This knowledge helps you not internalize the hurt.

And fourth, Rabbi Sacks told Professor Berman that taking a stand which others may oppose will ripple in unexpected ways. When we resist the angry response, our words and thoughts have soil where they can grow. Imagine if the half-Israelite had used his pain to continue to fight for change and to teach. As we persist in sharing our message, we must remember that it might just impact others.

Rabbi Sacks concluded by saying that when we can put our hurt into this type of perspective, we can actually move to a place where we look upon those who hurt us charitably and magnanimously.

Professor Berman wrote about how Rabbi Sacks’ words comforted him and gave him strength and guidance.  But about that last piece of wisdom, Professor Berman reflects: “Now, as for looking charitably and magnanimously toward those who hurt me, alas, let’s just say I am a work in progress.”  I could relate to that and hope the Midrash helps us realize that we all are works in progress seeking to view those who have hurt us charitably and magnanimously.

Let’s allow this story to remind us of the power of words to hurt or to heal.  Let’s find words that include, nurture and embrace, even when it takes us out of our comfort zone.  Let’s insist that everything we say binds us together and lifts one another up.  Let’s stop using words to destroy, hurt and reject.  The book of Proverbs states it succinctly: “Chayim v’mavet b’yad ha’lashon/Life and death are in the power of the tongue.”

It is so true.

Shabbat Shalom