I heard a d’var Torah today that focuses on the blasphemer in Emor, this week’s Torah portion. It sparked my memory that I had written the Dvar Torah below last year. At that point, I didn’t know that the story of the blasphemer would play out in a devastating way in Boston. If the blasphemer acted as I supposed last year, I’m not sure that I would feeling so comfortable with the punishment of stoning. After the events last week in Boston, after two young men killed and maimed blaspheming God’s name, my progressive values are being tried. It makes me wonder whether this is what the prohibition is really intended for.
I am confused. I am probably more confused than I ever have been in reading the Torah. In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, after a lengthy discussion of the holiday cycle, a strange little story is tagged on. We learn that the son of an Israelite woman, the son who has no name, is a blasphemer. He is brought to Moses who consults with God about what to do. God speaks to Moses telling him to take the blasphemer outside the camp, let all who heard the blasphemy lay their hands upon his head, and then let the entire camp stone him to death. It seems like a stiff penalty for cursing God, a statement that was sputtered after a fight.
This is a stunning scene on several counts:
- The man is the son of a Israelite woman and an Egyptian man. There is no discussion of who the man is. The Israelites have not been in the desert that long. Does this mean that Egyptians and Israelites routinely intermarried or is this an anomaly? The commentary in the Stone chumash says that in all of the years in captivity, this was the only case of intermarriage. Really? Several commentaries wonder if this shows that the alien in the camp faces the same penalty as any member of the community. The Plaut chumash dares to ask if this is the text warning against intermarriage. Was purity so important in the early stages of building a community that an outsider must be killed?
- This is one of only four instances in the Torah where Moses needs to consult with God before making a decision. What part of this issue was difficult for him? Condemning a person to death? Pointing out a family that is different?
- While the man and his Egyptian father are not named the Israelite mother is. She is Shlomit, daughter of Divri, of the Tribe of Dan. Her father’s name “Divri,” with the Hebrew root “to speak,” telegraphs that there is going to be something about speech. Why is the tribe mentioned? Rambam comments that although Judaism is derived from one’s mother, the tribal inheritance comes from the father. Since the father was an outsider, it seems that the mother’s tribe is identified. And the tribe is Dan, with the same root as the word dayan, judge.
Just last week I finished reading a novel called Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. It is a rich, absorbing novel about a Columbine-type school shooting. As the story unfolds, we learn about how the shooter felt like an outsider by being bullied throughout his short life. Was the man in the Torah bullied for being different? We learn about how his parents struggle to cope with the actions of their son. I wonder, how did this man’s parents cope with their son’s crime and punishment?
I wish I had some great wisdom to explain this incident. Bradley Artson, in The Bedside Torah, reminds us that “Rashi recognizes a message about human responsibility and belonging: ‘The wicked bring shame on themselves, their parents, and on their tribe.’ Similarly, the righteous earn ‘praise for themselves, praise for their parents and pride for their tribe’.” Our actions reflect on others and affect the others around us more than we can imagine.
Rabbi Artson closes with “Our deeds implicate those who love us and those who are connected to us through family or through culture. We may think we act alone, but we touch more lives than we know, and our deeds have the power to taint or adorn the lives of those who love us.”
Pikei Avot tells us “Kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh — all of Israel is responsible for one another.” In this case, maybe it’s because while our merits reflect on the people closest to us, so do our faults.
Bradley Shavitt Artson, The Bedside Torah, Contemporary Books, 2001
Jodi Picoult, Nineteen Minutes, Atria, 2007
W. Gunther Plaut and David E. S. Stein, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition, 2005
Nosson Scherman, The Chumash: The Stone Edition, (ArtScroll) (English and Hebrew Edition), Mesorah Publications Ltd; 11th edition, 1993