This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Aharon Ben Fruma
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
אֱמֹר ~ Emor
The final section of Parshas Emor is devoted to the infamous narrative of the M’kaleil, or the M’gadeif, literally, “the one who cursed” the Name of G-d and was executed by stoning [24:10-23]. The Torah provides very little explicit background for this story. All that is apparent is that this individual of Israelite and Egyptian descent was involved in some scuffle with another Jew, or a Ben Yisrael, and he ended up cursing Hashem’s Name. Certain that this individual must be penalized but not quite sure how, the B’nei Yisrael brought him to Moshe Rabbeinu who imprisoned him until Hashem clarified what should be done. Hashem sent back the verdict, Moshe reported it back, and it was carried out.
But, how did all of this happen? What was the fight even about?
Rashi cites two suggestions in Chazzal, both of which have some basis in closer readings of the text, the first of which though, at first glance, seems quite bizarre. He quotes the Midrash [Tanchuma 23, Vayikra Rabbah 32:3] in which R’ Berechiyah suggests that this whole account happened because this Israeli-Egyptian individual was scoffing at the Halachah (law) that the Torah was just discussing one passage earlier, that of the Lechem HaPanim, the Showbread which was displayed on the Shulchan (Table) in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) before Hashem [24:5-9]. What exactly was he scoffing about? He argued that most kings eat fresh, hot bread, yet, as per the Halachah, Hashem is served nine-day old bread (since, as the Gemara in Menachos [100B] explains, the bread would be baked every Friday but not be eaten until the next Shabbos a week later). From this controversial remark, a fight broke out which resulted in his cursing the Name of G-d. Again, the basis for this backstory to the M’kaleil’s sin is its juxtaposition with the Parshah of the Shulchan and the Lechem HaPanim.
What’s strange is that a seemingly minor issue—a mere difficulty understanding a Mitzvah—could lead to a public cursing of G-d’s Name. Was this incident really all over old bread?
This suggestion hardly seems as satisfying as the other suggestion in the Midrash which Rashi cites afterwards. In this second suggestion, he argues that this Egyptian-Jew was attempting to find housing in the camp of his mother’s tribe, Dan, whereupon he was rejected by the tribe because he lacked paternal inheritance or pedigree [Vayikra Rabbah 32:3]. When he was told, in Moshe’s court, that the Halachah ruled against him, he cursed G-d’s Name. Not only does this backstory read fairly well into the text which describes his national and tribal identities, but it gives a real reason why this individual would experience such emotion that would lead him to taking out his anger on Hashem. He was an outsider, trying to identify with his tribe and find a home. Yes, the people of his tribe had the letter of the law on their side and it was therefore legally fair that the tribe turned him down, and true, we cannot ultimately vindicate a person who curses G-d; however, on some level, we can sympathize with him in his situation.
Moreover, the Torah tells us “Vayinatzu,” that there was some sort of fight going on, and in fact, if one looks in other places in the Torah, the connotations of the Hebrew word includes intentions of physical violence [See Rashi to Shemos 2:12 citing Sanhedrin 79A and Rashi to Shemos 21:2 citing Sanhedrin 58B]. Further evidence to the extent of the fighting in this scene is that aside from teaching the B’nei Yisrael the verdict for the M’kaleil, Hashem also takes the opportunity to teach them the rules of interpersonal injuries and damages. The point is that it was clearly not just a Halachic debate that this M’kaleil was experiencing. It was an emotionally heated and likely physical confrontation. And while certainly, the sin of cursing G-d’s Name is unforgiveable and apparently punishable by stoning, there is a strong argument to suggest that had this individual been given emotional support from anyone involved in the story, he might not have reached the point of cursing G-d. And so, of course, according to this backstory, the man was understandably upset.
But again, this colorful picture of the M’kaleil’s narrative seems far more convincing than the one about the Lechem HaPanim. Just because of a textual juxtaposition, we should assume that the Lechem HaPanim somehow caused this man to curse G-d? And otherwise, had the Torah not been talking about the Shulchan, perhaps most of us would not have suggested that a simple Mitzvah would lead to his cursing out G-d. Thus, it seems kind of coincidental that it was the Lechem HaPanim that started all of this. Why did it have to specifically be the Lechem HaPanim that he was making fun of? Was this really the Halachah that bothered him so much that he made his smart remark? Most of are probably far more bothered by Kashrus (the dietary laws) or by the prohibition against having milk and meat together. Should something so simple and irrelevant to him as Showbread have led him to speaking out, and spark a fight that would ultimately get him to cursing G-d’s Name? Was it just a coincidence that this commandment was the last one he heard and made fun of before this fight broke out, and it really could have been any decree? How could such a tragedy be the result of discussion about old bread?
What’s also sort of troubling is that at least, in the other version of the backstory, we can consider the feelings of the M’kaleil. We could understand why someone who is rejected b his religious peers might be predisposed to cursing G-d. However, according to this Showbread theory, this guy was just a troublemaker. He was an instigator making provocative comments against a Halachah, seemingly untargeted by anything else.
And not only can we not understand or sympathize with the M’kaleil who started up and mocked the Lechem HaPanim, but we also cannot relate to the terrible deed he did when he cursed G-d. What led him to cursing G-d? He didn’t understand a Halachah, and okay, so he poked fun. It wasn’t the right thing to do. But that makes him a mocker, not a Satanist! Yes, he was being somewhat obnoxious, but he wasn’t actually hurting anyone, certainly not looking to curse anyone. Yes, if the M’kaleil was undergoing some traumatic and emotional struggle like in the other version of his backstory story, but whoever went off the Derech (religious path) just because he was having trouble understanding a Gemara?
It could be that the M’kaleil’s apparent frustration with the Lechem HaPanim is actually more significant than we’re giving it credit for. While, maybe, it could have been any Mitzvah, perhaps there was actually something fundamental that he had a problem with in the particular Halachah that caused him to scoff at it. What was so odd about the Lechem HaPanim?
As described in the Midrash, the M’kaleil felt that it would not be befitting for the King to be served bread that was nine days old. Yes, we all know that G-d is not literally eating the bread, and that there is deeper significance to the bread. And yes, perhaps there was a miracle that kept the bread fresh each week. But, could we not relate to the otherwise, pretty logical argument that the M’kaleil was making? We can understand why, in theory, it would be more fitting for a king to get fresh bread. Yes, in this case, we’re dealing with a Chok, a decree from the King Himself which can’t be disputed, and so, by default, the M’kaleil would have to be wrong. G-d said He wanted that way. However, elsewhere in Halachah, there actually does exist such a concept that we should not serve G-d things which we would not serve our own noblemen. The Navi, Malachi, explicitly cried out against those who offered Korbanos (offerings) from animals which were blind, ill, or lame, sarcastically suggesting [Malachi 1:8], “Hakriveihu Na L’Fechasecha”-“Offer it, if you please, to your governor!”
And so, even though the M’kaleil was wrong here due to a Halachic technicality, the logic of his argument was reflecting an actual Hashkafic (philosophical) concern that is valued by Torah. The Hashkafah reflects a degree of human decency, how to properly show respect, in this case for a king. It is actually not so crazy, and in fact, there might be some merit to M’kaleil’s argument.
But, why would this Halachah cause him to create such a ruckus in the camp which results in the cursing of Hashem? Cursing G-d’s Name is not a response to intellectual challenge.
The answer to this larger question, how a simple intellectual difficulty with a Halachah could lead to such a tragedy of the cursing of G-d’s Name, is probably that indeed, it was not merely an intellectual challenge that did it. Indeed, it wasn’t because this individual didn’t understand a Gemara. It was hardly a mere Halachah that set him off. Yes, his remark about the Lechem HaPanim apparently triggered a debate, and perhaps a fight, but the intellectual frustration alone did not cause him to curse G-d. Because, in truth, it is never just an intellectual issue that causes people fall by the spiritual wayside. It was because the intellectual conversation escalated into something more personal. It was the heat of the fight that broke out with his brethren that pushed him to his breaking point.
Yes, he might’ve made light of the Torah command, and certainly, the offence alone should trigger a sharp response from a wise sage among his brethren who might’ve debated him and taught him better. Of course you have to answer a heretic. But, the fact that even his most obnoxious or controversial comment about Halachah led a fist fight was the larger problem. That should never have happened. That is not how to handle a debate against even a mocker. That is not to say that violence is never the answer. If he commits a crime, a penalty is in order. If he curses G-d, a death penalty of violent stoning is apparently in order. But, otherwise, not a single hand should’ve been raised.
And in this, perhaps we see the sliver of merit to the M’kaleil’s argument about the Lechem HaPanim. Don’t be mistaken! Wrong the M’kaleil was, certainly from a Halachic standpoint. And perhaps he didn’t have best attitude. He was wrong about how to serve Hashem properly. Hashem wants nine-day old bread, that’s what Hashem will get. But the concept of decency and respect—though he applied it in the wrong context—is something that the individuals around him clearly forgot when they engaged in a violent confrontation with him. Had they maintained proper decorum as befitting a noble people such as the B’nei Yisrael, perhaps there could have been somewhat of a peaceful resolution. Perhaps, they could’ve debated Halachic and Hashkafic issues behind the Mitzvah and the intellectual challenge could’ve been resolved. Perhaps, he would’ve humbled down. Perhaps, nothing would have become personal and heated. And maybe, he was just a no-good heretic who would’ve continued sinning anyway. There is no saying for sure what would have been. But the ultimate cursing of G-d’s Name was for sure not the desired result, and that, the Torah tells us, started with a breach of human decency, a violent fight between man and his brother.
May we all be Zocheh to maintain our decency as humans, respect Hashem’s Halachah as well as all of His creations, increase peace and not strife, cause only sanctification of Hashem’s Name, and Hashem shall reward us accordingly with the coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos! (Don’t forget to count Sefiras HaOmer.)
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂