Rabbi Gershon Silins, 13 May 2016
This week’s Torah reading, Emor, is a continuation of the Holiness Code, outlining the nature of holiness as it applies to priests and their obligations. But it closes with a curious and disturbing story that has a number of features that aren’t easy to explain.
The story recounts the crime of blasphemy by a man in the Israelite camp. We are told that this man “came out among the Israelites,” that he was the son of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother, and that he and a certain Israelite man fought in the camp. Then this son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name. He was taken before Moses and held until God could decide his fate. God spoke to Moses and said, take the blasphemer outside the camp, and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and then let all the community stone him.
Questions arise from the beginning of this strange story. As uncomfortable as is the idea of being put to death for blasphemy, it could have been told very simply – a man blasphemed God, and paid the price for doing so by being stoned to death by the community. But the questions start right from the beginning: from where did this man “go out,” since all the Israelites were in the camp? Was he living somewhere else, or did he go out from a tent within the camp? If the former, where was he living? And if the latter, why does it bear mentioning at all, since (as our sages noted) the story would make complete sense if that phrase were left out.
Sifra, a midrashic commentary on Leviticus, seeks to answer some of these questions. This man, Sifra tells us, wanted to pitch his tent amidst the Tribe of Dan, to which he claimed membership from his mother. His right to do so was resisted by that tribe, so he took his case to the court of Moses. Moses decided against him, and he “went out” from the court of Moses, and blasphemed in angry reaction to what he saw as an injustice.
The prohibition against blasphemy already appears in Exodus 22:27: “You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people.” From this passage, we might deduce that cursing God is closely connected with cursing authority. This lends support to Sifra’s story of the unsuccessful court case. But such a thing could have happened to a full-blooded Israelite, too; we know that Moses decided many cases, and some of the losers must have felt aggrieved. If the story were just about someone breaking the prohibition against blasphemy, the Torah wouldn’t need to tell us about the lineage of the blasphemer. But it does, so it must be significant. This man’s mixed heritage – half Israelite, half Egyptian – tells a story of a stranger rejected.
This is the story of the son of an Israelite woman – her name was Shelomit, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan – and an Egyptian father, about whom we are told nothing. This man sought refuge and a home amongst our people. It is on the basis of his mother’s tribal identity that (so Sifra tells us) he seeks a tribal home, but he is fought at every turn, first by the adverse decision in the court of Moses, then in a fight with an unambiguously native Israelite, and then, when he can take it no longer and reacts in anger, he is rejected and called a criminal. His status as a member of the people is rejected, but he is Israelite enough to render him culpable for the crime of cursing God.
Immediately after the story, the Torah goes on to describe the general rule: anyone who blasphemes God shall bear the guilt, and one who also pronounces the name of God shall be put to death … whether that person is a stranger or a citizen.
Perhaps this man was not quite enough of a stranger – his half Israelite status may have been worse than that of a complete foreigner. As a descendant of the Tribe of Dan, he should have had a home amongst the tribe. Failing that, then, as a stranger, he should have been treated in accordance with the commandment in Exodus 22:20: “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It appears that the Torah abandoned this principle in the case of someone who was neither fully stranger nor fully native. One might suppose that he was considered a suspicious character whose loyalty no one could be certain of. And ultimately, it appears that fear won out over principle.
The increasing flood of refugees in recent years has challenged the good will and ethical obligations of the countries to which they seek admittance. Our Torah at its best, in Exodus, reminds us what our ethical obligations are, and in this portion, where the Torah is arguably not at its best, it reminds us just how difficult it can be to uphold them.
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