Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23): An Eye for an Eye and Blasphemers

I am a blasphemer. Not in how I use God’s name as a swear word. I swear very little if at all. I am probably not a blasphemer in contravention of the Third Commandment that instructs us, “not to bear the name of YHWH in vain.” (Exodus 20:7) However, I am a blasphemer deep in my heart and even deeper in my mind. This is not a charge stated lightly or carelessly. Rather, it is an onerous one and is the main reason I find this week’s portion so intriguing.

What is a blasphemer?

Parashat Emor is primarily about the equation of purity and holiness and, more particularly, how priests are to avoid becoming “polluted”. Yet, incongruously, the portion ends with the stoning of the blasphemer just before the law of retaliation (lex talionis) is repeated. The two sides of the sandwich, rules of retaliation and priestly injunctions against pollution, are critical to my understanding of blasphemy and how it should be treated by a community.

Let me begin with the injunction of an eye for an eye, the injunction to retaliate. Verses 24:19-20 read as follows:

ויקרא כד:יט וְאִ֕ישׁ כִּֽי־יִתֵּ֥ן מ֖וּם בַּעֲמִית֑וֹ כַּאֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֔ה כֵּ֖ן יֵעָ֥שֶׂה לּֽוֹ: כד:כ שֶׁ֚בֶר תַּ֣חַת שֶׁ֔בֶר עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת שֵׁ֑ן כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִתֵּ֥ן מוּם֙ בָּֽאָדָ֔ם כֵּ֖ן יִנָּ֥תֶן בּֽוֹ: Lev If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: 24:20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.

This is not an abstract imperative to me. Last Monday I was operated on my left eye. It was injured when I was seven-years old. Doctors removed a piece of lead, stitched up my pupil and for over fifty years I could only discern light and dark; through that eye, everything only looked like various shades of a cloud. Once just over twenty years ago when we were driving north on Vaughan Avenue just south of St. Clair Ave. W. and I was in the passenger seat, I suddenly exclaimed aloud, “I can see! I can see!” For the first time in over five decades on the big billboard on the north side I could discriminate actual shapes with my left eye – blurry though they were. I even saw some sort of difference in colour, though, when I checked, not quite what others saw. But the recovery of some sight in the left eye was “a miracle.” I could see with my left eye, not clearly, but see nevertheless.

Over the years since, contrary to the pattern of most people, my sight in that eye gradually improved so that I began to be able to identify shapes and even read very large print. The improvement was attributed to the fact that the scar tissue on my pupil had gradually become smoother over the years and had become more and more transparent. My retina had never been injured. It was suggested that I get laser surgery and there was a good chance that my vision would improve even more.

When I was first told about this, I was informed that there was a risk, not a tiny one but a significant chance that there would be no further improvement and that the improvement in my vision would even be set back. The main reason was that my pupil had been misshapen by the injury and laser surgery would be riskier. I decided not to take the risk and rather enjoyed the gradual improvement in my sight in my left eye over the last two decades.

Then four things happened. First, I had begun to develop cataracts in my eyes, much worse in my partially-sighted left eye than my right, and my vision in that eye had begun to become more blurred again. Second, laser surgery had improved enormously and the chances of success had changed dramatically. Third, my optometrist, whom I saw regularly, seemed more dedicated to improving my eyesight than I was and “insisted” that I see a surgeon. Fourth, in the test for my surgery, at least in one of the tests, the technician put a blackout lens over my right eye and a dark lens with pinholes in it over my left eye. I was asked to read the letters on the screen.

Miracle of miracles! I could read every single letter, right down to the tiny ones on the final line. Clearly, I could even have perfect vision out of that eye if the light was allowed to reach the retina easier and perhaps more directly and more focused. I joyfully acquiesced to the surgery.

A week ago Monday I had the surgery. This Wednesday I went for my follow-up examination. I could read through the left eye all but the bottom row of letters on the black-and-white screen. I had been rewarded with 20/30 vision. Success!

What does this story have to do with a revenge ethic let alone with blasphemy? The full context of the injury helps clarify the relevance. When I was seven-years-old, fifteen months younger than my late older brother (he eventually became a highly-regarded cardiologist), he had just turned nine. As he did his homework at the kitchen table in our house on Ulster Street, I began to tease him mercilessly for having to take school work home and for not finishing everything at school or even dispensing with it quickly when we got home. Finally, in rage and exasperation at the continual interruptions and the constant teasing, he turned and flung his pencil at me. The pencil hit my left eye and the end piece of the lead broke off and remained lodged in my pupil.

That was on a Thursday after school. We did not know the extent of the damage at the time, or that the lead had been lodged in the pupil. My eye just stung and kept watering. The nurse was not in the school on Friday and I was sent to see her first thing on Monday morning. She immediately called my mother and I was rushed to Sick Children’s Hospital in the old building on College Street that now houses the blood bank. I was operated on the same day and spent the next three weeks in the hospital graduating by steps from a black mask to a Lone Ranger mask and then a black pirate patch over my left eye.

Other than eating salty porridge – sugar was still rationed immediately after WWII – my memory of the hospital in a general ward with about twenty other young boys was that we had had a wild great time over the three weeks of my stay. My blind eye has just become a fact about me. Because I had very dark brown eyes, no one noticed that the left pupil was turned upwards unlike my young friend, Charlie Menkes, who had an external scar over his eye where he had been cut. In contrast to me, everyone knew he was blind in his left eye.

What if the law of retribution had been in effect? Would my brother have lost sight in his left eye because he had thrown the pencil? Even though I had provoked the action? After all, the injunction simply stated that, “The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him.” How unjust that would have been! And my late bother might not have become the brilliant medical diagnostician he turned out to be.

The lex talionis was not nuanced like the Hammurabi Code that only required an eye for an eye if a noble had been injured. The person would only have to pay a few shekels if the victim had been a commoner or even half that value if he were a slave. If he was a Mesopotamian, my brother would have been forced to pay me his earnings for perhaps a few hours of work for I too was just a commoner. But we were not Mesopotamians. We were Jews. And the law in the Torah regarded everyone as equal and requiring the same retributive punishment.

The injunction of an eye for an eye is one part of the narrative, the top slice of the sandwich. I have already written about the other side-story, the bottom slice that occurs in Leviticus, God’s sudden slaying of Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, for who knows what – because they erred as priests in bringing alien fire into the Holy of Holies, because they might have been a bit tipsy, or for a myriad of other rationales that rabbinic authorities have dreamt up to excuse such murderous divine action without giving the victim a hearing or any due process let alone some slack. Unlike alleged pollution of the holy, at least an injured eye only required injuring the eye of the one who caused the injury and not sudden and immediate death. Thank God my brother had only injured me physically and not polluted the purity of God’s holy place.  I regard these rare side-stories as perhaps throwing more light on the law than all the details of that law.

Which brings me to the blasphemer. (Leviticus 24:10-12) In the camp, there was a fight between two boys, presumably young adults rather than young boys like my brother and myself. The two boys were not brothers at all. Both mothers were Israelites, but the father of one was an Egyptian while the father of the other was an Israelite. Had the young lad with the Israelite father provoked the other boy by calling him a half-breed? Had the boy with the Egyptian father responded by cursing the Israelite God?

Whatever the back story, the son of the Egyptian father was put in the stocks to await YHWH’s decision about his punishment. Note, there is no indication that the one boy injured the other in the fight, only that he blasphemed God. But was this a different example of retributive punishment? What happened? Presumably God’s honour was far more important than a blinded eye for God ordered the Israelites to take the lad outside the community and stone him.

ויקרא כד:יג וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֶל מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר:כד:יד הוֹצֵ֣א אֶת הַֽמְקַלֵּ֗ל אֶל מִחוּץ֙ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה וְסָמְכ֧וּ כָֽל הַשֹּׁמְעִ֛ים אֶת יְדֵיהֶ֖ם עַל רֹאשׁ֑וֹ וְרָגְמ֥וּ אֹת֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָֽה: Lev 24:13 And YHWH spoke to Moses saying, 24:14 “Bring out the curser outside of the camp and all who heard him will lean their hands upon his head, and the whole community will stone him.”

Was this similar to the treatment meted out to Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu? The treatment of the son of the Egyptian father seems much worse or, at the very least, much gorier. Nadab and Abihu seemed to be instantly consumed by God’s fire. The son of the Egyptian father and the Israelite mother, Shelomith, clearly suffered a much slower and more agonizing death. However, there is an indication that the blasphemous son of the Egyptian father, is, like King Josiah, the real hero of the story. Like Rebecca, the mother of the son with the Egyptian father was Shelomit, daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan. Such a description was a lofty honorific.

Was racism involved? Was the son of the Egyptian father really being punished for being of “mixed blood” and, therefore, a symbol of the so-called pollution of the nation through intermarriage, through breeding cattle of one kind with cattle of another kind? Did such alleged “pollution” defile Eretz Israel, the Holy Land itself?

That seems not to be the case. The bloody mob execution was not racist. It appears that the text condemns racism. After all, Miriam got a skin disease for chastising Moses for taking an Ethiopian bride. The following verse is even clearer and reads as follows:

ויקרא כד:טו וְאֶל בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל תְּדַבֵּ֣ר לֵאמֹ֑ר אִ֥ישׁ אִ֛ישׁ כִּֽי יְקַלֵּ֥ל אֱלֹהָ֖יו וְנָשָׂ֥א חֶטְאֽוֹ: כד:טז וְנֹקֵ֤ב שֵׁם־יְ-הֹוָה֙ מ֣וֹת יוּמָ֔ת רָג֥וֹם יִרְגְּמוּ ב֖וֹ כָּל הָעֵדָ֑הכַּגֵּר֙ כָּֽאֶזְרָ֔ח בְּנָקְבוֹ־שֵׁ֖ם יוּמָֽת: Lev 24:15 And to the children of Israel you will speak, saying: any man who will curse his God will bear his sin.  24:16 And one who will pierce the name of YHWH will surely be put to death.  The whole community will surely stone him, like stranger and like citizen; when he pierces the name he will die.”

It did not matter who cursed God. Israelite or son of an Egyptian were to be treated the same – stoned and murdered for cursing God. Should we be delighted that in this case egalitarian principles of equality before the law trumped racism? Shawna Dolansky a professor at Carleton University whom I have cited favourably before, seems to think so. I myself find this type of compensatory rationale, however valid in bringing out the principle of equality before the law, to be a distraction from the law that required blasphemers to be stoned.

Dr. Serge Frolov finds this injunction to kill blasphemers to be an embarrassment to the religious and body politic of Israel. I, on the other hand, find it intriguing. Perhaps the one who cursed God was not a reference to him in a racist or nationalist sense, but that he was an Egyptian in his heart, that he belonged to the class of people who prevented the Israelites from being liberated. On the other hand, even though he dissed God, perhaps it was he who at this time lived among the Israelites and now stood on the side of liberation and freedom as well as equality. Perhaps he stood as a foil in contrast to those who stone others for using God’s name as a curse word and who demand an eye for an eye. Perhaps the son of the Egyptian was a symbol of one who challenges the premises of both injunctions and argues that the God of Israel is a God of self-revelation, is a God that learns the lessons of excess zealotry and reverence for purity, is a God who gradually, through intercourse with flawed humans, learned too of His own flaws and learned as well to accept responsibility and to diss His inhumanity.

Afterword I

Ignoring for the moment those who simply deride the barbarism of such laws, this stance is quite different from that of most Reform Jews, who avoid discussing such injunctions that they find embarrassing. Others, supply twisted rationales. Still others, mainly a few evangelical Christians, believe that such demands should be taken literally and enforced. Certainly, in their own way from their own sacred texts, Islamicists from the Taliban and ISIS take similar injunctions literally. What about interpreters like myself who try to understand the plot, the characters and the theme in terms of the textual context and the thrust of the narrative?

The story begins with two boys struggling. Unlike Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau, they are not blood brothers. But they are at odds. But like those stories, in the struggle, the one favoured by God (Abel) or by Isaac (Esau) is not the one that becomes the carrier of the historical narrative. Cain and Jacob win but carry the wounds of that victory similar to the way Jacob limps after wrestling with the angel. Similarly, after an enraged Moses killed the overseer for his barbaric treatment of the Hebrew slave, the next day when he found two Hebrews fighting (Exodus 2:13) and asked why one Hebrew had struck his fellow Hebrew, the striker bravely retorted and asked why Moses was acting so high and mighty. Then he mocked Moses responding, “Do you think you can kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”

This story of the stoning of the son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother echoes that one, for the son of the Egyptian God, like Moses, acts out of rage, not to kill as Moses did, but to use God’s name as a curse word. But unlike Moses, the Israelites do not flee for they are now on their own land. Further, it is the Israelites who perform the unseemly violence, not Moses, and not in wrath, but in a cool-headed and cold-hearted belief that they were just inflicting a divinely sanctioned punishment for simply using God’s name in vain.

This fighting (נִצִּים) that takes place in both cases is not simply a physical fight, but a struggle to find the correct path and the norms. And like the pattern throughout the Torah, somehow, the choice originally taken seems the worse one, whether the injunction flouted is one of protecting the purity of the Holy of Holies or the name of the Holy One Himself. It will take humanity to soften and amend the harshness of God’s pristine and inflexible commandments.

That is reason enough to be a blasphemer.

Afterword II

Note that, unlike the case of Aaron’s two sons, towards whom God took umbrage, it is the Israelites who arrest the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother for cursing God.  God simply delivers the verdict. But God does not get off the hook so easily. We all know the nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you.” Just as it is totally unjust to take an eye for an eye, it is far worse to take a life simply for dissing God. Unless – an important unless – the name of God is His life essence. Blasphemy is not simply using God’s name as a curse word, but abusing God’s name, God’s reputation.

Is this not like Putin punishing dissidents or Erdoğan arresting Turks for insulting the highest authority in the land or Donald Trump insisting that dedicated civil servants be fired for besmirching the name of The Donald. After all, what else is Trump, for better or for worse, but his brand? Isn’t that true of God? And is it not much more of a blasphemy than using God’s name as a swear word to comparing YHWH to Putin, Erdoğan and Trump? Does that not make me a blasphemer in my heart and mind much more deserving of being stoned than the son of the Egyptian father and Israelite mother who used God’s name as a curse or my brother who, in justified anger, threw a pencil at my eye?

All the twisting of the story to turn it upside down and inside out to insist it is a warning against the Israelites insulting anyone’s god, is a lesson against religiously inspired violence based on the belief that insulting the divine name is a most serious and egregious transgression, is not only beside the point, but a more repulsive apologetic in the name of higher principles than all the Talmudic rabbis who try to justify the injunction.

I am more worthy of being cursed because I challenge not only God’s holiness as giving Him an immunity, but the whole idea of separating the holy and unpolluted from the profane and unpolluted. For the nitty-gritty of ethics is to be found in the profane rather than in any abstract vision of purity or perfection. That is why rabbinic Judaism was superior to either the puritanism of the Essenes or the priestly ritualism, even if it often slipped back into the errors of its close predecessors and contemporaries.

 

Hail to heartfelt and mindful blasphemers!

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Sacrifice

Yom HaZikaron begins at sundown. This evening and tomorrow some of us memorialize those fallen in war and as victims of terror in Israel. Note two points. First, it is not a holiday about Jews who have died, but about any soldiers who have died on behalf of Israel. Though the vast majority have been Jewish, some of those who sacrificed their lives for the country were not. Second, the day is also defined as a memorial for the victims of terror as well, and these were mostly civilians. Though most of the publicity refers to fallen soldiers, the full and proper name of the memorial day is: Yom Hazikaron l’Chalalei Ma’arachot Yisrael ul’Nifge’ei Pe’ulot Ha’eivah (יוֹם הזִּכָּרוֹן לַחֲלָלֵי מַעֲרָכוֹת יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְנִפְגְעֵי פְּעוּלוֹת הָאֵיבָה) “Memorial Day for the Fallen Soldiers of Israel and Victims of Terrorism.” Originally, the day commemorated and was a “General Memorial Day for the Heroes of the War of Independence.”

23,645 deaths of soldiers were commemorated, up 101 from the year before, and the deaths of 3,134 terror victims were also commemorated. The solemnity of the day is hard to convey to those outside Israel. The one minute of silence this evening and two minutes at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow morning are but a small part of the ceremonies. Normal broadcasting stops. Traffic totally stops when the siren for silence sounds. Throughout the land, there are memorial services, intimate family ones, communal ones, mostly in synagogues, and large civic and military ones.  The day commemorates the sacrifices made to establish and maintain an independent state of Israel. You cannot have the latter without the willingness to give one’s life as a sacrifice.

For example, the American Declaration of Independence (tomorrow, I will compare the Israeli and American declarations) ends with these words: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honour.” In many nations, independence is only achieved because of the willingness to sacrifice. However, in Israel, sacrifices of one’s possessions – animals and grains in an agricultural society (korban  קָרְבָּן) – are radically distinguished from self-sacrifice. The former is intended to bring man closer to God; korban means ‘be near’. The latter are in service of bringing humans closer to one another in forging the spirit of a nation. The former takes place to compensate for sins; after the destruction of the temple the second time, worship, prayer and philosophic reflection replaced such sacrificial acts. The latter take place even though sins may be entailed.

 As Golda Meir once said, “We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children. We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” To take the life of another is a sin, whether in self-defence or in murder. That is inscribed in the flesh of every male Jewish child. Nahmanides taught, and it is widely believed among Jews, that the near sacrifice of Isaac memorialized replacing all human sacrifices with animal sacrifices. I believe that the near sacrifice of Isaac is memorialized in the token cutting away of the prepuce of the male penis to signify that for some causes, such as that of a nation, fathers are willing to sacrifice their children. The circumcision inscribes into the body that fathers, to some degree, cannot be trusted for they are willing to sacrifice their children in war to achieve a greater horizontal nearness among men.

As I indicated in a blog several days ago, some evangelical Christians believe that they sacrifice themselves in service to a pagan Trump because Trump will serve God’s purpose in bringing about a believed restoration of the Christian (white) nation. Trump is turned into a mere instrument for a higher purpose and for the past. However, sacrificing oneself for one’s nation is not a higher purpose, but a future purpose. It has a time dimension. It says that the sacrifice is necessary for the future of one’s nation and for your children’s children.

What about when God sacrifices humans? In last week’s portion, He did precisely that. And before an altar. After a very long description of the various modes of sacrifice, their purposes and rituals and the very lofty ceremonies installing Aaron as the High priest and his two sons as priests, God incinerates those same two sons.

א  וַיִּקְחוּ

 

 

בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם.

1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.

 

The only clue that God had a rationale is the reference to a strange or alien fire that Nadab and Abihu used in the sacrifice. Were they killed because they were innovators and did not adhere absolutely strictly to the regulations set down by God? That is the main interpretation of Moses’ rationale in verse 3. “Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.” This and a myriad of other rationales were offered over the years by commentators – the two brothers had come to their jobs tipsy; their garments were not in immaculate order. Many others using more twisted but somewhat ingenious hermeneutics.

But the verse can be read in a very opposite way – the two sons were not unintended contrarians too distant from God’s precise commands, but, rather, the sacrifice of the two boys by God’s fire was intended to bring humans even closer to God. Just as later it would be said that it is through the sacrifice of Jesus that humans can become one with God, so his portion of Leviticus it is through the incineration of the priests one time, and one time only, that man can be brought nearer to God. That is why Aaron was silent and neither protested nor lamented the loss of his two boys.  That is why the whole nation was commanded, not to bewail the loss, but to “bewail the burning which the Lord hath kindled.”

God planted fire in the human body in the image of the Lord. It is a passion which can lead humans to create. Or it can turn into an alien flame that will end up incinerating oneself.

Over the last two days I saw two more films. In Phantom Thread, a movie directed by Paul Thompson Anderson, Daniel Day-Lewis brilliantly plays a very creepy couturier (Reynolds Woodcock – the name is meaningful) who is an obsessive compulsive mother’s boy who uses women as doormats and designs dresses that, with rare exceptions, are terribly ugly, but are viewed as the epitome of high style taken to be expressions of beauty and the pleasures such beauty brings. What they really illustrate is that fashion taken as art is really a fad of a specific time and place, a trick performed by an artisan to take women in, just as Woodcock does on the interpersonal level. Woodcock takes movement and form and encases it in so much material and so many restrictions that the dress turns into a method of reifying a woman. That is the real secret of the messages he sews into the linings of the dresses he makes.

Another movie I saw last evening contrasted this pretense of exquisite sensibility to overcome the grubbiness of materialism and possessive individualism with a different approach. For it was a bi-op of J. Paul Getty rooted in the drama of his grandson’s 1973 kidnapping by Italians for a ransom.  In Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, Christopher Plumber – who replaced Kevin Spacey in the first effort – in his own way is as brilliant as Daniel Day-Lewis, but he plays a more one-dimensional figure, a scrooge who will not even pay a ransom for his grandson, John Paul Getty III (Paul played by Timothy Hutton). Far less creepy than Woodcock, but perhaps even more repulsive, Getty worships reified art and artifacts and despises people. Getty is as fine a dresser as Woodcock, but he uses his grubby possessive materialism to acquire exquisite works of art for their “eternal” beauty. If Woodcock longs for the warmth of his mother’s arms, Getty simply wants to stick it to his dad who never thought he would amount to anything.

The foil for both men are two very independent women, Alma (Vicki Krieps) who is a waitress raised up, in spite of small breasts, wide hips and broad shoulders, to become the muse and model of Woodcock, but who turns out to be an independent force in her own right unwilling to take Woodcock’s efforts to diminish and demolish her while Woodcock only offer sideways glances of recognition and flattery. Gail (Michelle Williams), Getty’s daughter-in-law, married to his dope addict son, is devoted to her children. She is a very different mother than the one presumably Woodcock had, for she is nurturing, caring and self-sacrificing, but not suffocating, even though she personally has almost nothing material to give.

Phantom Thread is a baroque gothic “romance.” All the Money in the World is an action film portraying a real rather than fictional character and an archetypal real-life former C.I.A., Fletcher Chace spy played by Mark Wahlberg .  But the two movies are both about men interested only in sacrificing others, especially women, for themselves, rather than sacrificing themselves for others. Getty is an avatar of possession while Woodcock is an avatar of obsession, the first to use infinite wealth to purchase great art, the second to use his relatively modest wealth to turn a dress into a work of art and his interpretation of aesthetic perfection that is as weird as he is.

The creepiness of both major male figures in the two movies and their foils can be summed up from the women’s point of view by a poem of Mary Carolyn Davies that I used in a play I wrote almost sixty years ago:

Women are door-mats and have been

The years those mats applaud

They keep their men from going in

With muddy feet to God.

There is an ironic note. The one item of obvious fiction in the Getty film is about fire. Gail’s son and Getty’s grandson, Paul, was supposedly an arsonist who got kicked out of school for burning it down and then uses fire to escape his captors near the end of the film. Both initiatives and actions seemed totally out of character because Paul seemed incapable of the initiative to counter God’s fire with his own independent and alien fire. Instead he burned up the rest of his life with heroin smoke until he became a paraplegic. A little historical research goes a long way in helping with interpretation.

Self-sacrifice is to be revered when it serves to knit humans together but when it is used to run away from oneself, the path of destruction follows. It may, however, and often does mean running into the line of fire. And when that happens, we do well to commemorate the sacrifices.

Appropriate Ways to Mourn

Appropriate Ways to Mourn

by

Howard Adelman

From now on, when I want to go on a real holiday and escape my regular routine, I will take my laptop with me, as I always do, but take the wrong cord so that I cannot recharge the laptop. That way, I do not feel guilty because I intended to work, but do not work because I cannot – or so I tell myself. Leisure without guilt is heavenly bliss. This was my most important delusionary discovery of my trip to Ithaca, New York; Boston, Mass.; Princeton, New Jersey; and Savannah, Georgia from which I returned on Friday.

I had planned to write blogs about the trip, and still may. But I did not. After all, I told myself, I could not. Of course, I could have purchased a new cord on the trip or bought one of those new recharging devices that I had read about. But I did not. I was content to enjoy myself without feeling guilty, comforted by the convenient lie that I had made a mistake – not my fault – and, therefore, I could just enjoy the trip without indulging in my personal obsession of writing about it.

As everyone knows, when you go on a trip, no matter how excellent the experience, the greatest reward is often the return. “Home is where the heart is,” and all those clichés. I returned in time to attend Torah study yesterday morning. I was surprised at how much I missed it. As it happened, yesterday’s study of Torah was the most contentious and the most emotionally arousing of any I had ever attended – not only for me, but for many of the participants.

This evening, Yom HaShoah begins – the day for remembering and mourning the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. That was the ostensible reason for focusing on the small section of the Torah that was chosen for study. More formally, the day of remembering and mourning is called: Yom Hazikaron laShoah ve-laG’vurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה; “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”).

But I, and I suspect many other Jews, tend to forget it is about remembering heroism and not just the huge number of tragic deaths. Further, I remember my deliberate or insensitive obliviousness to the Holocaust altogether when I was a callow youth. Not so young that I should not beat my breast for my ignorance. I was then married with one child and was in graduate school studying philosophy. I also was a tenant of a house at 586 Spadina Avenue that I had rented from a Holocaust survivor who had moved to Montreal. He had told me about The Black Book he had compiled and self-published on the murder of Hungarian Jews in the last year of the war.  He not only could not sell the copies, but he could not even give them away. They were piled up in boxes in the basement. He asked modestly that if I had a chance, I should find places and people to give the book.

I went down the basement and retrieved one copy. It sat on my shelf for a year. I never even cracked the binding to skim it. Yet I remained convinced after reading Hannah Arendt that Jews had not resisted and had been complicit in their own death. When I had a chance to check directly with a survivor and with his account to confirm or falsify Arendt’s account, I failed to do so. In my many moves, I even lost track of the copy of The Black Book that I had. On Yom HaShoah, I remember not only the Holocaust, but my own ignorance and indifference to the resistance of the Jews. I remember my silence.

I mourn my mindblindness. I did not know that the date of remembrance originally chosen was the 14th of Nisan to commemorate the Warsaw ghetto uprising and would only learn of this when I and my family visited the Warsaw Ghetto Museum on a kibbutz in Israel a dozen years later and two decades after the holy day had been declared. However, the day originally chosen fell immediately before Passover, so the final date for the holy day was almost two weeks later, the 27th of Nisan, eight days before Israel Independence Day. Tomorrow, I will attend a memorial service.

However, other than Aaron’s silence, it is difficult to make a connection between the passage of Torah chosen for study and Holocaust Remembrance Day. The focus of discussion was virtually entirely about mourning personal loss and the appropriate way to do so and not about a horrendous collective loss. The passage goes as follows:

Leviticus Chapter 10 וַיִּקְרָא

א  וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. 1 And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the LORD, which He had not commanded them.
ב  וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה. 2 And there came forth fire from before the LORD, and devoured them, and they died before the LORD.
ג  וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-אַהֲרֹן, הוּא אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה לֵאמֹר בִּקְרֹבַי אֶקָּדֵשׁ, וְעַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָעָם, אֶכָּבֵד; וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן. 3 Then Moses said unto Aaron: ‘This is it that the LORD spoke, saying: Through them that are nigh unto Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron held his peace.

God just killed the two eldest sons of Aaron, the High Priest, and Aaron stood in silence:וַיִּדֹּם, אַהֲרֹן.

Moses, instead of wailing at the death of his two nephews and instead of commiserating with Aaron at his terrible loss, merely used the occasion to reprimand Aaron and remind him that the way God reveals his holiness (and his power) is by insisting that people, and, more precisely, the priests, do exactly what God tells them. God’s instructions were to be followed to a “T”.  Neither Aaron nor Moses remonstrated God for His utterly disproportionate response to the failure of Nadab and Abihu to follow God’s precise instructions. The two had sinned for using incense in the fire pans to start the fire. God insisted that He and He alone would light the sacrificial fire. Further, only the incense from the sacred bronze altar was to be utilized. They had offered before the Lord alien fire. They had sinned for not following God’s protocol. God smote Nadab and Abihu. Moses chastised Aaron. Aaron stood in silence.

It gets worse. Moses ordered that the two be buried outside the camp. Eleazar and Ithamar took the places of their two older brothers. Moses told them and their father, Aaron, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community.” (Leviticus 10:6) When the sister of Aaron and Moses – Miriam – died (Numbers 20:1), there is no account of mourning as there was when Sarah, Abraham’s wife, died (Genesis 23:2) or when Aaron himself subsequently died as reported in the same Parsha Chukas that recorded Miriam’s death. Abraham wailed at Sarah’s death. The whole Israelite community wailed at the death of Aaron. The Torah records Miriam’s death with silence.

But, at least, there was no prohibition against mourning and warnings of dire consequences if one did not follow God’s instructions. Mourn not. Bewail the alien fire not the death of Aaron’s two sons. Failure to do so would have stark consequences, not only for the leaders of the Israelites, but for the entire community. Was the silence “appropriate”?

Rashi said it was. In fact, God rewarded Aaron for his silence by subsequently addressing him and not Moses to pass on the commandment not to engage in sacrifices if drunk. The implication is that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when they employed the “alien fire.”

On the other hand, in contrast to Rashi, Isaac ben Judah Abravanel (1437-1508) condemned Aaron’s callousness. Aaron’s heart had turned to stone when he did not weep or mourn as a grieving father usually does. Because he had lost his soul, he was speechless. Was silence a sign of deadness, of a loss of soul, or did the silence connote “inner peace and calm”? (R. Eliezer Lipman Lichtenstein)? Was the silence and forbearance a sign of Aaron’s holiness because he refused to chastise God for his own personal great loss?

Was Aaron shocked into silence or did he retreat into an inner blissful state of being? Baruch Levine argues that Aaron both mourned and did so in silence. He was not in shock forיִּדֹּם  means to moan and mourn, as well as to do so in silence. Aaron mourned inwardly while the community wailed outwardly lest Aaron as high priest be defiled by participating in the normal way in a grieving session. In Braakhot 6b, Rab Pappa went further and insisted that maintaining silence in a house of mourning is precisely the appropriate response. In Job 2:13, silence is perceived as the proper and respectful response to horrendous grief. Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite “sat down with him (Job) upon the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word unto him; for they saw that his grief was very great.” (Job 2:13) Rab Yohanan (Moed Katan 28b) taught that “comforters are not permitted to say a word until the mourners open a conversation.”

Is silence the appropriate response to horrendous loss? What is appropriate for a mourner to do who suffers a great loss? What is the appropriate sentiment of a friend or a relative to be expressed to one who suffers such a great loss? Is silence the right thing to do? I have my own experiences to guide me.