Parashat Emor- Man and Beast
At the end of Parashat Emor, we read of the unfortunate incident of the "Megadef," the blasphemer, a man from Beneh Yisrael who publicly blasphemed the name of God. In response, God instructed Moshe that the "Megadef" must be put to death. Interestingly enough, however, God’s instructions do not end there. He then proceeded to tell Moshe other, seemingly unrelated laws: "One who kills an animal shall pay for it, and one who kills a person shall die" (24:21). For some reason, after establishing the punishment for blasphemy, God finds it necessary to add that one is liable to capital punishment for murder, and one who kills somebody’s animal must compensate for the loss. How are these laws relevant to the context of the "Megadef"?
The sin of the "Megadef" involves his misuse of the faculty of speech. Our ability to communicate ideas through words is a remarkable gift from Hashem, and is what distinguishes us and sets us fundamentally apart from other creatures. And we have been given this gift to use for lofty purposes – to speak kindly to others, to pray, to learn, and to help develop and advance the world. The "Megadef" used this power for the precise opposite purpose – to defame and desecrate the Name of God. God emphasizes this aspect of the "Megadef" story by noting the distinction between killing people and killing animals. A murderer is liable to the death penalty, whereas killing somebody’s animal is punishable only by compensation. The loss of an animal can be compensated for, but the loss of a human life can never be repaid. Human beings are fundamentally different from beasts, as we are endowed with a sacred soul, and this difference is most clearly manifest through the power of verbal communication. Therefore, when responding to the tragic incident of the "Megadef," God noted the legal distinction between murder and killing an animal. He emphasizes the special status of human beings, who are able to speak and express ideas, thus highlighting the gravity of blasphemy, the ultimate misuse and defilement of the faculty of speech.
The Torah makes a point of informing us that the "Megadef" was the son of a woman named Shlomit Bat Dibri. The name "Dibri," which relates to the root "D.B.R." ("speak"), likely alludes to the fact that she was a talkative woman, who did not exercise proper discretion in speech. The Torah thus mentions her name to show us the origins of the "Megadef," the family background that very possibly led to his heinous crime. Parents who speak improperly are likely to beget children who speak improperly. It is no coincidence that a woman referred to as "Bat Dibri" had a son who defiled his tongue by blaspheming the Almighty.
Few, if any, of us are likely to follow the example of the "Megadef" and publicly curse the Name of God. Nevertheless, we have much to learn from this unfortunate episode about the value and sanctity of speech. As speech is what sets us apart from animals, the way we talk in a sense defines the extent of our humanity. We must exercise extreme care in how we use this remarkable power, and always speak in a dignified, proper and refined manner, using this gift the way God intended for it to be used. And as we see from the story of the "Megadef," the way we speak has a profound effect upon our children, whose own manner of speech develops according to the example they see at home. If they watch and hear us speaking properly, this is how will they will speak, as well, and they will thus grow to use God’s gift for the purposes it wass intended, to glorify His Name and bring more Kedusha into the world.