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“Not Exempt,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

May 17, 2024 | 9 Iyyar 5784

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings, a weekly reflection as we move toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

When rules and laws apply to some and not to others, chaos ensues. Therefore, the law should be equally applied in all circumstances. No exceptions. Today, and in ancient times.

Our Torah portion this week, Emor, affirmed such an idea:

You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 24:22)

You may be surprised why this seemingly sensible rule appears.

The entire portion provides details to ensure that the priests guarantee holiness over the profane. It runs through descriptions of lighting the lamps in the Tabernacle and setting up the altar. All of the holiday sacrifices are set up to safeguard the offerings and sacrifices and the purity of the priests.

As the portion comes to a close, we confront a dramatic episode. A man born of an Israelite woman and Egyptian man pronounced the Name (of God) in blasphemy after getting into a scuffle with a fellow Israelite man. The response was swift and what we would deem, harsh.

The Eternal 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. (24: 13-14)

Does the punishment fit the crime? To the ancient, maybe it did. The idea of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth etc… also appears here. But there is something else as well. The text emphasizes that the punishment goes to stranger and citizen alike for such an egregious act.

There are two particular lessons that arise from this text. The first is the equal treatment of those within the community and those who are strangers. Both should receive the same treatment, even when it means a punishment. It leads us to recognize the full scope of uniform treatment for good or for bad whether it is blasphemy, a report of one’s payments, testimony before a court of law, the right to decide what happens to one’s body or the regard for those who enter our country legally or those in need of protection and assistance. As the rabbis of Talmud emphasized, “you shall have one manner of law.”

The second idea is the challenge of what blasphemy means and how it is applied. I can’t help but wonder whether what is egregious is how we treat each other. Remember the cited story here is inaugurated when they fight. When we show disrespect toward another human being, we violate the sacredness God represents. Our tradition teaches that holiness is how we take care of each other.

The point of this portion is to protect the sacred from what is profane. Long ago, they realized a fundamental rule of living in their time and context that translates to ours as well. To live in a just society is to demand from each person the same responsibility and behavior. No one is above, outside, or exempt from the law.

Shabbat Shalom!

I continue to value the many comments you exchange with me through these Shabbat Awakenings.

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher