I would like to tell you a story about a young girl, growing up in what is now modern-day Ukraine about three or four hundred years ago. She came from a poor family. Her father was a shoe-maker, and her mother helped eek out their living by growing vegetables in the small plot of land that was situated next to their dwelling. Which was hard work, as they did not live on a desirable plot of land, and it frequently flooded, washing their crops away. They barely made a living. The girl had three older brothers, all of whom attended the local shul. They were a family that took their studies, and their halacha, seriously. The girl, however, was too busy helping at home, to ever attend the shul, much as though she would have loved to do this.
Some of the other people in the shtetl commented that the girl seemed ignorant – but this really was not very fair as the family simply did not have the means, in time or money, to support her in getting an education.
Then, when she was just 11 years old, her father decided that he would take her to synagogue on Yom Kippur. If she never gets to go any other time of the year, this would be the time to do it! She sat in the shul the whole day, but she did not know how to pray. And so she sat there. Then … as the Ne’illah service progressed, she still could not join in on the prayers. She just didn’t know the words. And then, just at the last prayers were being recited, at that moment shortly before the gates of heaven shut at the end of Yom Kippur, she stood up and whistled and shouted. Maybe she was moved by the spirituality of the day that she was finally able to connect to. Or maybe it was cry at the heaviness of her life, the difficulties and challenges of being a young, poor, jewish woman in that part of the world. Her father tried to get her to stop but he could not. The rabbi, a wise man, thanked the girl and concluded the service. He addressed the congregation and explained that this note, this emotion, this pure expression, kept the gates of heaven open and with this carried through and lifted up everyone’s prayers, and this was the purest prayer there could be.
This is a story adapted from the Hasidic folk tale about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidic Judaism. I love this story, and it really highlights the beauty and power of free expression of voice. Free and liberated expression in our ritual and spiritual lives may not be something that we focus on as progressive jews. Perhaps we think more about listening, questioning, dialogue, even rejecting, rather than free expression of this type. I do wonder what would happen if someone expressed themselves in this way in one of our services. Free singing and shouting is not currently permitted with the Covid restrictions – so would they be asked to leave? Or muted on zoom?
This week’s parsha is called Emor, which means speak. This is not necessarily referring to the free, liberating, expression of speech, like the girl’s crying out and shouting in the shul in the story, but rather is an instruction to Moses to pass on the laws to the priests and to the wider Israelite community. These laws cover an expansive range of topics, including matters of how to handle dead bodies, and then guidance on how to mark, and celebrate, many of the jewish festivals, including Pesach, Rosh Hashannah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and the Omer period which we are in at the moment.
Then, just before the end of the parsha, there is a very short story where we return to this theme of speech. In the story, a fight breaks about between two men, and one of the men speaks God’s name in blasphemy. The man was placed in custody, and Moses consults with God to decide upon an appropriate punishment.
So who was this man? This section of Leviticus is referred to as “the holiness code”, in which many of the laws are established, and narrative stories are scarce in this part of the Torah. So the story itself must be important, but we know very little about the man himself. We don’t know his name. We do know, however, that he is the son of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman. A later commentary suggests that the Egyptian man, his father, was the slave owner that Moses killed right back in the Exodus story.[i] We are told his mother’s name – she is from the tribe of Dan and her name is Shulamit. Shulamit shares a root with the word ‘shalom’ / peace.
So what do we know? This is a man, who got into a fight and blasphemed the name of God. Yet the Torah decides that the most important details about him are not the exact details of the fight, or any other of his character traits that may be associated with aggression, but rather tells us about his heritage. He is the product of an Egyptian man and Israelite woman. There was likely a significant power inbalance in his parents. His mother would have been enslaved, while his father would have been a free man. Perhaps his mother was exploited in some way, or worse, when she was enslaved. We know that his immediate heritage includes slavery and slave ownership. And we know that his mother was named after peace. He has both violence, and peace, exploitation and servitude in his heritage. These are the details that the Torah wants us to know.
The Torah then goes on to tell us the punishment for this man, before stressing the most fundamental legal principle: “you should have one standard for stranger and citizen alike” – which is a radical shift in circumstances for this man, given that his parents were not accorded “one standard” but rather his father would have been judged according to Egyptian standards, while his mother was treated as a slave.
So here we have an invitation to judge this man not just on his speech, but put his speech into context and understand the perspective where he may be coming from. This does not remove his accountability and responsibility for blaspheming, and he did receive a punishment, but it does encourage us to empathise with his circumstances and not just to consider him a foul-mouthed individual not worthy of further thought.
We must never be lulled into a sense that we all share the same points of view, or the same perspectives – we don’t! Hopefully the communities we are a part of can be places where we *can* have free expression, whether that is through shouting, whistling, singing in tune and out of tune, or all of the other wonderful ways we can express ourselves! – where we aren’t in fear of being judged. And when we miss the mark, just like this nameless man did in this Torah portion, and speak in a way that is hurtful, or disrespectful to others, then so too our actions and ideas are put into our wider contexts, and our disagreements become an opportunity for connection and exploration of one another’s perspectives and backgrounds, and we don’t just stop short at judgement.
[i] Tz’enah Ur’enah