Emor by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

Emor: The Blasphemer Speaks

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


“A certain man came out among the Israelites, one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And the man fought with another man in the camp, who was pure Israelite. The half-breed cursed, using the Name of GOD blasphemously. They brought him before Moses. The half-breed’s mother’s name was Shulamith bat Dibri, of the Tribe of Dan. The Israelite Peace Officers placed the half-breed under guard, until the LORD would clarify His decision to them, regarding the blasphemous half-breed.

“And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying, ‘Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and let all who heard him curse lay their hands on his head. And then, let the entire Community stone him to death.

“And God said to Moses, ‘To the Israelite people speak thusly: “Anyone who curses his God shall be guilty…and shall be put to death.”’ …And they took the half-breed, the blasphemer, outside the camp, and threw stones at him until he died. The Israelites did as the Lord had commanded Moses. And the nation had peace.”

–Lev. 24: 10-14, 23 (translation mine)


I, the Stranger, walked through the desert night and the chilly air, on my way to the camp of the Israelites. A silver slipper of a moon shone above, and the sandy path glowed under its pallid light. I thought of Sefkhet, the Egyptian moon-goddess—having lived in Egypt for about four hundred years, many of us were familiar with their gods. She was deity of the stars and of time; surely she would help our people in their struggles through the wilderness. For, truly, the Wilderness kills its inhabitants; it saps their strength, and steals their very soul.

Moses was growing old; it was difficult for him to go out and to come in. His brother Aaron was still grieving the loss of his two boys, Nadav and Avihu, who had been taken from him so suddenly. He offered the sacrifices, yes; but he did them in a mechanical fashion; there was no passion, much less spirituality, in it. There was still Miriam, the eldest, and most enthusiastic for love of God and of leadership—but she was a mere woman, and most of the men would never listen to her.

I trudged through the Wilderness, alone with my thoughts of gods and men. But then, I suddenly saw him out of the corner of my eye—a thin figure, almost lost in the shadows, racing about with such speed that I found him difficult to track. The darkness of the desert night did not help.

Was he friend or foe? I asked myself, and my hand tightened on the handle of the bronze dagger which I carried.

At last, the figure slowed down somewhat, and, heart in my mouth, I hailed him, there amid the wilderness gloom.

“You there, friend,” I began, “Who and what are you, and from where do you hail? Come closer, slowly, or I will skewer you on my blade.”

The figure looked at me directly; a ray of moonlight lit up his face. I shrank back, beholding a visage so tragic and full of horror. I wished I had let him go his way in peace—though I doubted whether peace could ever come to any creature who looked so grievously saddened. Still, he advanced slowly towards me, making no sound. I drew my knife, holding it so that the moonlight reflected off the blade.

“Come forward, holding your empty hands before you,” I commanded, “for I do not like either your looks or manners.”

The spectre threw back his head and laughed—such maddened, screaming laughter as I had never before heard in my life.Nor did I wish to ever hear it again. He seemed to be laughing and crying, both together.

“You cannot hurt me, Mortal,” he said, “for I am—you must believe me!— a suffering spirit—and I am (here he grinned, like a long-dead skull) I am already dead.”

Dead? I wondered, and, as though it had a mind of its own, my knife slid back into its belt-sheath. My hands were cold; I began to tremble all over.

“If you are, as you say, dead,” I said to him—or it—“How comest it that you are alive, and wandering the earth? Why are you not in Sheol, the Place of Silence, where all the spirits of the dead go, whether killed in battle, or dying, full of years, within their tents?”

The spectre stopped, considered my question, and answered me: “I am a wandering spirit, doomed to the flames of Hell—yes, such a place exists!—whose lord, Azazel, commands us to ascend to the Upper World every evening. Here, we gather twigs and branches to stoke its flames. I never rest: by day, I suffer all the torments of Hell, and, by night, I rush about and gather twigs, until the first cock-crow.”

“What was your crime, O Spirit who lived and is now dead?” I asked him, “And why did you go to Hell and not Sheol?”

“I am he of whom you have heard,” said the Spirit, grimly. “I am the spirit of the Egyptian-Hebrew half-breed. They accused me of cursing another man, most blasphemously, in the Name of God. Therefore, both God and Moses decreed that I should die by stoning.”

“That is a gruesome death,” I commiserated.

He nodded. “It is horrific,” he agreed, “I still can feel the rocks hitting my innocent flesh. I did not deserve it. It happened during a fight. My Israelite foe had pushed and insulted me—what was I to do, except strike him, to save my honor? More: the coward was calling out to his brothers and friends to come and hurt me further.”

“That is not what I heard,” I answered, “for I have read the text of your hearing and trial.”

“It is false,” said the spirit, “and I believe that it was altered, to preserve the honor of Israel, and intending to show why a full Israelite is both stronger and more upright than a blasphemous half-breed.”

He began to cry. “What crime did I commit, save that of being born to an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman? Is there no place for me among the people of Israel? All my life I have had to deal with prejudice. Even on my day of death, my dearest friend Shemura bat Elitsafan, a Danite like myself, were planning to marry.”

“Did her family accept you?” I asked, my heart opening up to this unfortunate spirit.

The Spirit shook his head. “No,” he said, “for they said, ‘Away with you, Half-breed! Our daughter will never have bastard children with you. Go and marry your own kind—go back to Egypt!” The tears rolled down his bony cheeks, from eyes that glowed like fire in the desert darkness. “How can I return to Egypt? It is not my home. I have lived all of my life among my people, Israel.”

“Can such prejudice exist among a people such as ours, who were persecuted for four hundred years in Egyptian slavery?” I asked

“My time in Hell has made me many friends—desperate victims like myself,” said the spirit, gnashing his teeth, “and I have learned that such hatred among people is not confined to Israel. Everywhere, it seems, humanity finds a reason to gossip, and even attack, those who are different

“Will this ever change, or is it in Man’s nature to hate?” I asked, “How can we stop it?”

He stared at me—such a gaze as froze my soul. “My time is done on earth, Stranger,” he said, sadly, “but you are still alive. You can make a difference.Begin, NOW.”

And he vanished, leaving me here, with a mission to perform. Will you join me, Friend?

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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