Say What?? Parashat “Emor”

In a Torah portion that gives us a list of all the Biblical holidays, and shares more details regarding the holiness of the priestly service, the last story – in Leviticus 24 – seems completely out of place. A man, son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man “goes out” among the Children of Israel, where he and another “Israelite man” have a fight. Is this the only fight to ever take place in the desert? or maybe it happened sometime, when people had nothing much to do?? But this one gets the headlines, because the ”son of the Israelite woman” curses the Name of G-d, and Moses and the people don’t know what to do with him.

י וַיֵּצֵא, בֶּן-אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית, וְהוּא בֶּן-אִישׁ מִצְרִי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיִּנָּצוּ, בַּמַּחֲנֶה, בֶּן הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית, וְאִישׁ הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִי. 10 And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp.
יא וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן-הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת-הַשֵּׁם, וַיְקַלֵּל, וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת-דִּבְרִי, לְמַטֵּה-דָן. 11 And the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, and cursed; and they brought him unto Moses. And his mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan.
יב וַיַּנִּיחֻהוּ, בַּמִּשְׁמָר, לִפְרֹשׁ לָהֶם, עַל-פִּי יְהוָה 12 And they put him in ward, that it might be declared unto them at the mouth of the LORD. {P}
יג וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. 13 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
יד הוֹצֵא אֶת-הַמְקַלֵּל, אֶל-מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, וְסָמְכוּ כָל-הַשֹּׁמְעִים אֶת-יְדֵיהֶם, עַל-רֹאשׁוֹ; וְרָגְמוּ אֹתוֹ, כָּל-הָעֵדָה. 14 ‘Bring forth him that hath cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him.
טו וְאֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, תְּדַבֵּר לֵאמֹר: אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי-יְקַלֵּל אֱלֹהָיו, וְנָשָׂא חֶטְאוֹ. 15 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin.
טז וְנֹקֵב שֵׁם-יְהוָה מוֹת יוּמָת, רָגוֹם יִרְגְּמוּ-בוֹ כָּל-הָעֵדָה: כַּגֵּר, כָּאֶזְרָח–בְּנָקְבוֹ-שֵׁם, יוּמָת… 16 And he that blasphemeth the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him; as well the stranger, as the home-born, when he blasphemeth the Name, shall be put to death….

A “stand-off” between a “son of an Israelite woman” and “an Israelite man”: One is presumably young; one – mature. One – half member of the community; the other- full. We don’t know the names of those fighting, though we know the mother’s name and the tribe. The story is tragic, for sure, but for a book that is skimpy in details, why tell us about this?

We are a little after the middle of Book of Leviticus, after the mishkan has been prepared and the priests – assigned their jobs. We now have a holy place, holy functions, as well as holy times, as spelled out in the list of holy days in chapter 23. Indeed, everything about Leviticus is about holiness.
If so, the mekalel– the “son” cursing here – might be doing so as a reaction to an extra intensive doze of holiness. For him there is no inspiration. Rather, it is as if he says, ‘enough already, I don’t want it’.
We have seen other reactions to holiness: Nadav & Avihu, Aaron’s son (in chapter 10) got “too close”, their fire caught in G-d’s fire causing their death. We will also see the “mekoshesh”, the man gathering wood on Shabbat, coming up in the Book of Numbers 15:32-33.
If Aaron’s son’s represent the overly ecstatic, the mekoshesh represents someone who is apathetic, who doesn’t know and doesn’t care. One has too much fire, the other – not at all.
In contrast with them, the “curser” in this section represents someone who cares deeply but is irritated with the community and its practices. It’s not that he does not believe in G-d, but rather, he is angry with G-d, the world and rules He created. It’s not that he doesn’t have fire; it’s just all over the place, misplaced. The passage about this man begins with the verb – vayetze, and he went out. Where did he “go out” to? We’re in the desert! He can’t go very far, can he? But he “goes out” – out of himself, of the confined structure of holiness around him. He feels disconnected and lone, facing a fellow Israelite, and especially, facing G-d.
The mekalel did something wrong and deserves to be punished but, he needs to be punished by the “whole community”. Why not just a few judges? Because his behavior, is- partially- everybody’s responsibility. We were told right away that his father was Egyptian. That alone meant that he had no Israelite father to show him ”the ropes” of being Jewish. This “son” did not start out cursing. He started out as a person among many. What happened along the way? Who helped care for him? The community has to take a serious look at itself and do its “cheshbon nefesh”- self introspection. If we were the community, we’d have to ask, where were we when someone grew up among us, alone and isolated? Where were we when a human being, another person created in G-d’s image, was suffering so much that he turned against his fellow and against G-d?
In the last couple of weeks I’ve been watching the Netflix show “13 Reasons Why”. It’s considered “controversial” and “problematic”, and yet, I would still highly recommend it. It’s a show, not a therapy session; it’s designed to make money for Netflix, not to fix anyone’s issues, I get all that. And yet, it raises a similar question regarding the balance between the individual’s responsibility and that of the community around. The short is, we can’t save everybody all the time, but we should at least try. We might be surprised to learn that at times, all it means is noticing someone and greeting them with Shalom.

Shabbat Shalom.

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