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Home » Emor

Emor – The Ironic Act Of Love

Submitted by on April 25, 2010 – 3:50 amNo Comment | 4,523 views

The Blasphemer

When he lost his case in Moses’ court, the blasphemer pronounced the ineffable name of G-d and cursed; bringing life in the desert to a standstill. No one knew how to respond; they had never imagined that this egregious sin would be committed and had ever contemplated its punishment. The man was taken into custody and the question of protocol was brought before G-d.

G-d’s answer was not long in coming:

“Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard [his blasphemy] shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him.” (1)

This should have spelled the end of this episode, but the prophetic transmission continued.

 “And if a man strikes down any human being he shall be put to death. . . And a man who inflicts an injury upon his fellow man just as he did, so shall be done to him. . .. And one who strikes a person shall be put to death.”(2)

The astute reader will wonder why the punishment of the blasphemer was followed by the apparently unrelated content about death and personal injury. Would these laws not fit better in the section that deals with personal injury?

The question becomes even more perplexing when you contrast the two parts of the transmission. G-d instructs the entire community to mercilessly stone the blasphemer and in the same breath articulates the value of human life. If life is so precious, why did G-d not pardon the blasphemer?

Gift of Atonement

The purpose of execution is not to punish the sinner, but to atone for sin. Every sin inflicts spiritual damage on our souls. There are sins that inflict light damage and their atonement is effected through light forms of punishment such as monetary fines or lashes. (3) Today, that Jewish courts are not competent to administer punishment, atonement is effected through repentance. (4)

Then there are harsher sins that cause profound spiritual harm to the soul. (5) Such damage, which cannot be repaired through repentance or light punishment, leaves the soul with two options; it can endure the cleansing experience in the afterlife or atone for its sin through execution. (6) Of the two, the former is far more painful. Execution inflicts pain on the body while the soul escapes free and pristine, but atonement in the afterlife, administered directly to the soul, is excruciatingly painful.

Our sages taught that of the many sins that inflict damage on our soul, desecration of the Divine name is most egregious. (7) Permitting blasphemers to live out their remaining days in peace is, in fact, cruel for it forces them to face a terrible ordeal in the afterlife. Ironically, their execution is an act of mercy or tough love for it effects atonement for them in this life and helps them escape suffering in the world to come.

Rehabilitation

Let us use the analogy of detoxification and rehabilitation.tough love innerstream Imagine G-d forbid that your son falls in to the bottomless pit of drug addiction and his life becomes hell on earth. He is in full denial and insists that he can control his habit, but you know the truth; he cannot free himself of his dependency. Without professional help the addiction will likely destroy his life.

You admit him to a detoxification center where he undergoes a severe regimen to rid his body of narcotics. He loses weight, becomes depressed and his young body is wracked by seizures. It is a wrenching experience; your heart goes out to him, but you know that this treatment is his best option. Failure to rehabilitate will land him back on the streets where his tortured existence will bleed away in some ignominious gutter.

Your son rails against you and accuses you of cruelty, but you know better. You know that it was mercy that drove you to admit him. One day, when he is fully rehabilitated, he will be grateful for the tough love you had the courage to show.

Let us translate this into spiritual terms. If G-d pardoned the blasphemer he would live out his life with a terrible stain on his soul and would have to endure an acutely painful cleansing in the afterlife. G-d’s decision to execute the blasphemer was an act of mercy; it effected atonement for him in this life, in the most painless way possible. In the afterlife his soul would be grateful. (8)

It is important to note that nowadays Jewish courts no longer administer lashes or execute sinners because the court was stripped of its punitive authority when the ancient Temple was destroyed. (9)

Compassion

 We now know that G-d views the execution of the sinner as an act of mercy. But it is not sufficient that G-d know this, it is crucial that those administering the execution know it too.

Let us return to our analogy of drug rehabilitation. The patient at the rehab center will only rehabilitate if the staff treat him with kindness. If the entire staff, from orderly to doctor, treat him with tenderness and love while cringing at his pain he will be able to respond. If they treat him with disdain and view his suffering as a well earned punishment, they will likely fail to inspire anything, but resentment.

 The same applies to the executioners. If their actions were imbued with love, if their eyes were filled with tears and their hearts with pain, they would be effective agents in the atonement of his sin. But if they allowed cruelty to creep into their hearts and saw themselves as avengers of G-d’s honor they would be rendered ineffective agents of atonement.

 To help the executioners appreciate just how much G-d cherishes and loves every human, including the sinner, the prohibitions of murder and injury were grafted onto the story of the blasphemer. We wondered about the inconsistency of these subjects, but we can now see the connection.

G-d juxtaposed the laws about the value of human life unto the execution of the blasphemer because He wanted the executioners to appreciate the infinite value of the life they were about to take. (10) He wanted them to love the blasphemer as they loved themselves. (11) He wanted them to recoil from the terrible act they were about to commit, but to commit it anyway; with tears in their eyes, knowing that it is the ultimate act of love.

Footnotes

  1. Leviticus 24:14.
  2. Leviticus 24: 17, 19 and 21.
  3. Sefer Likutim on the subject of death. See also
    footnote #6.
  4. Babylonian Talmud Yuma 86a.
  5. Zohar III p. 75a. See also Sefer Likutim referenced
    in footnote #4.
  6. Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 43b. Before execution,
    the sinner was made to confess. This was done so the execution would
    effect atonement for the sin as our sages said, “Today you are troubled,
    but you will not be troubled in the world to come.”The Mishnah
    explicitly states, “Such is the practice of all who are executed for he
    who confesses has a share in the world to come.”See also Sanhedrin
    bottom of 47a.
  7. Babylonian Talmud Yuma ibid.
  8. See Chafetz Chayim Al Hatorah on Leviticus 24:12.
    After explaining that execution is an act of atonement he cites Sefer
    mitzvos Gadol and writes that certain sins are of such egregious nature
    that the damage they inflict cannot be repaired even through execution,
    which is why such sinners are not punished in this world. Their
    atonement is per force administered in the afterlife where the suffering
    of the soul is excruciating.
  9. The atonement effected in the past through
    corporeal punishment is now primarily achieved through repentance. When a
    greater form of atonement is necessary (for example the type that
    necessitated lashes in ancient time) it is now achieved through travail
    and illness. The atonement effected in the past through execution is now
    achieved through untimely passing.
  10. Our sages taught (Sanhedrin 58b) that striking our
    fellow is as grave an offense as striking G-d. In light of our essay it
    is rather fitting that Rabbeinu Bachye links this teaching to the
    juxtaposition of the blasphemer and the laws against striking our
    fellow.
  11. Leviticus 19:18. Hillel defined this Mitvah in the
    following way. What is abhorrent to you, don’t do unto others. In Derash
    Moshe, on Leviticus 24:12, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein explained that the
    executioners were required to reflect that had they sinned they would
    not have relished their own deaths; they would have preferred to be
    pardoned. Thus they had no right to execute blasphemer. If they were not
    filled with love toward the sinner and reticence for the execution,
    they were not fitting to act as executioners. It was only out of love
    and the conviction that this is the most merciful way to effect
    atonement that a Jew might be executed.

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