The Megadef Episode

  • Rav Yair Kahn

Dedicated In loving memory of 
Dr. Saul G. Agus z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on Iyar 3
Marcelle A. Agus and 
the Agus/Fox Families
Dedicated in memory of
Frieda Heller (Frieda bat Alexander Sender) z"l
whose yahrzeit falls on the third of Iyar,
by her granddaughter Vivian S. Singer.
In memory of Sarolta Lowenstein Reiter - Tsarna bath Morthe z”l,
from Debrecen, Hungary
whose yahrzeit is 15 Iyar.

I. Out of Context


Parashat Emor includes the parasha of moadim, which (as we noted in the shiur on Parashat Vayikra) deals with the sanctity of time. The Torah notes specifically how this sanctity expresses itself in the context of the Mikdash through korbanot offered on those special occasions. The Torah further notes the laws of lighting the Menora and placing the lechem ha-panim on the Table, both of which take place in the sanctuary and express aspects of the service that are constant and consistent – “tamid” – in contrast to the once a year events of the moadim. This section is immediately followed by the story of the megadef (blasphemer). Following that story, the Torah focuses on the laws of shemitta and yovel, returning to the theme of sanctity of time.


The episode of the megadef appears to be out of place. What is its connection to the parshiot that precede and follow it? Why did the Torah record the story after the parasha of the moadim and before that of shemitta and yovel?


The simplest solution would be to claim that the episode of the megadef occurred at this point, thus alleviating the search for thematic flow. However, the question of location is deeper than that – we must ask not only why this parasha is placed at the end of Parashat Emor, but what is it doing in Sefer Vayikra at all! As we have noted previously (in the shiur on Parashat Vayikra), the sefer is almost entirely halakhic in nature, not narrative. The events that occurred after the inauguration of the Mishkan are recorded in Sefer Bamidbar (see chapters 7 and 9). Thus, chronological history cannot justify the location of this section at the end of Emor – or, for that matter, in Sefer Vayikra!


An additional difficulty is that the section itself seems to lack focus and unity. The Torah describes that after the megadef sins, he is placed under guard because Moshe does not know what punishment he deserves. Then Moshe receives an odd list of laws, which begins with instructions regarding the proper punishment of a megadef, but quickly digresses into a seemingly unrelated discussion about murder and damages:


And you shall speak to the children of Yisrael, saying: Whosoever curses his Lord shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemes the name of Hashem shall be put to death… And he that smites any man mortally shall be put to death. And he that smites a beast mortally shall pay a life for life. And if a man shall maim his colleague, as he has done, so shall it be done to him: a break for break, an eye for eye, a tooth for tooth… And he that kills a beast shall pay; and he that kills a man shall be put to death…  (Vayikra 24:15-22).   


In summary, we have raised three serious difficulties with the parasha of the megadef: 1) What is the common denominator of the various laws mentioned in the parasha? 2) What is the relationship between this parasha and the parashiot before or after? 3) Why did the Torah record this episode in Sefer Vayikra?


II. And They Fought in the Camp


Let us begin with the various laws mentioned together with that of the megadef –murder, property damage (specifically killing another person’s animal), and bodily damage. The primary category of all the above is bein adam la-chaveiro (between man and his fellow). In contrast, the transgression of blasphemy is bein adam la-Makom (between man and Hashem). Why does the Torah juxtapose a religious transgression together with social misbehaviors?


The answer to this question is found in the opening sentence of this section: “And they fought in the camp, the Israeli man and the son of the Israeli woman” (24:10). From this introduction, it is clear that the act of blasphemy was not a result of a crisis of faith or anger at Hashem, but rather an ordinary civil dispute. Our question should therefore be redirected – how did civil strife lead to such a serious religious transgression?


It is important to recall that Sefer Vayikra is the sefer of kedusha. In the shiur on Parashat Vayikra, we suggested that the sefer is titled Torat Kohanim based on the vision of Yisrael as a kingdom of kohanim. What ramifications does this have for human behavior? How does it impact on the way a person deals with his fellow? The Torah’s answer to this question is offered in Parashat Kedoshim, where, the Torah records many civil laws under the banner, “You shall be holy for I Hashem your Lord am Holy” (19:2). It is forbidden to steal, lie and cheat. One must judge fairly and honestly. Taking revenge is prohibited, and one is called upon to love his fellow (see 19:11-18). Within the context of our discussion of the megadef, we should take special notice of pasuk 14: “Do not curse one who is deaf.” While all of the above can be attributed to ethical norms, in Sefer Vayikra, the source is the call for kedusha and fear of Hashem.


Unfortunately, despite the ideal of kedusha and the utopian civil behavior that it demands, human beings inevitably fail. Basic human characteristics and instincts combine to create social friction, which clouds the vision of kedusha. What happens when this vision becomes blurred and jealousy and passions are aroused? How does civil strife express itself within the context of kedusha?


Is this not the story of the megadef, in which blasphemy resulted from social frustration and not religious heresy? The story begins with an ordinary fight between two men. Normally, disputes result in one person trying to get back at his antagonist.  He might intentionally damage property; perhaps he will decide to destroy his adversary’s flock. In some situations, he might inflict bodily harm, or maybe, chalila, take a life. In Sefer Vayikra, however, a different path is chosen: “And the son of the Israeli woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed” (pasuk 11). If the framework is one of kedusha, then social frustration may travel on a religious path. One may defile kedusha in order to inflict religious pain on his adversary. Within this context, blasphemy is an act of revenge, not an expression of heresy. 


Based on the above, we can explain the inner integrity of the parasha of the megadef; it is a parasha of civil dispute within the context of Sefer Vayikra, and is therefore combined with the laws of murder, bodily harm, and monetary damages. However, we have yet to explain the puzzling location of this parasha. Why was this story recorded between the parasha of moadim and the parasha of shemitta?


III. The Two Stories of Vayikra


Sefer Vayikra, which is almost entirely halakhic, seems to be intentionally removed from the human historic context; it is meta-historic. It is a vision, a challenge – not a historic reality, and therefore contains very few stories. The historic context of the sefer of kedusha is one day – one transcendental moment when fire descended from the Almighty and devoured the offerings on the altar. The human efforts to achieve that kedusha are documented in Sefer Shemot; the human attempts at implementing it are retold in Sefer Bamidbar.


Despite being almost totally halakhic, two stories are nonetheless recorded – the story of the death of Nadav and Avihu and the episode of the megadef. The reason that the Torah recorded the death of Nadav and Avihu in Vayikra is obvious. After all, Aharon’s two children were killed on the eighth day with the same fire that descended from heaven and devoured the sacrifices placed on the altar. The inclusion of the megadef story, however, remains a mystery.


Perhaps we can suggest that both stories contain a common denominator: they both deal with the interface between kedusha and human reality. They both describe situations in which inappropriate human behavior results from a kedusha existence. Nadav and Avihu were destroyed because they felt that they were worthy of entering Hashem’s presence. Living in a world of kedusha, they failed to note the infinite gap separating Man and God (see the shiur on Parashat Tazria). They took the idea of kedusha and its application to the world of humans too far; they tried to extend themselves beyond the reaches of Man and enter the presence of God.


The story of the megadef also deals with problems resulting from the interface between kedusha and human reality, but from the other end of the spectrum. The episode began as an ordinary civil strife, but escalated to blasphemy because of the context of kedusha. The megadef was unable to elevate himself and control his jealousy. He succumbed to his basic human inclinations, but due to the context of kedusha, this resulted in defiling the name of Hashem.


These two stories thus complement each other, as each describes a different aspect of inherent tension between human reality and the vision of kedusha.


We are called upon to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; we must retain our humanity, but redeem our existence as we aspire for kedusha. Nadav and Avihu failed to recognize the limits of humanity, while the megadef failed to redeem his human existence.


In light of the above, we might view the two stories of Vayikra as a frame of the sefer. The story of Nadav and Avihu’s death follows the opening section of Sefer Vayikra, which begins with the statement: “And Hashem called unto Moshe, and spoke unto him out of the tent of meeting, saying…” (1:1). As we noted in a previous shiur, this calling was an invitation to Moshe to enter the sanctuary after the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan on the eighth day of the milu’im and prevented Moshe’s entry (see Shemot 40:34-35). Later (ch. 8), the Torah documents the first seven days of the milu’im, and Rashi notes that ein mukdam u-meuchar ba-Torah (the Torah is not bound by historical order); these seven days actually preceded the opening verse of the sefer, which takes place on the eighth day. The Ramban notes that historical order is the default position, and any change must be explained. Why did the Torah distort the historical sequence in this case? Why couldn’t Vayikra begin with seven days of miluim and the fire descending from heaven on the eighth day, and subsequently record the laws of the korbanot that Moshe actually received later on that day?


Perhaps the Torah intentionally began Sefer Vayikra with the eighth day because that day, when the glory of Hashem appeared to Yisrael, is the essence of the opening unit. This serves as a foreward to the entire sefer; it sets the tone with the appropriate historical framework for the kedusha idea. In order to emphasize this idea, the Torah distorted historical sequence and opened the sefer with the eighth day, with the divine call inviting Moshe to enter the place of kedusha.


According to this suggestion, the opening section of the sefer ends when the celestial fire descends and consumes the sacrifices placed on the altar. What happened immediately following that dramatic moment was the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.


The story of the megadef is recorded right before the closing unit of chumash Vayikra, which records the covenant of Har Sinai and various related laws. The common denominator of this section is Har Sinai. Chapter 25 begins: “And Hashem spoke to Moshe in Har Sinai saying” (25:1). The Torah concludes the covenant with the pasuk: “These are the statutes and ordinances and laws, which Hashem made between Him and the children of Yisrael in Har Sinai by the hand of Moshe” (26:46). The chumash comes to an end with the words: “These are the commandments, which Hashem commanded Moshe for the children of Yisrael in Har Sinai" (27:34). In contrast to the beginning of Vayikra, where the divine word emanates from within the sanctuary, the Torah notes Har Sinai as the divine source for this unit.  


Perhaps, the location of the megadef story immediately before the closing unit of Sefer Vayikra is meant to parallel the Nadav and Avihu story, which follows the opening unit. The Torah hints to the relationship between these two complementary stories, which both deal with the complexity of being a holy nation – the first in which man moves forward too far, and the second in which man has not moved far enough.