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Blaming the Blasphemer – Parshat Emor 5774

Updated: May 16

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Society today is dominated by a culture of blame.  It is easier to blame others – our parents, the doctor, the lawyer, the government, the teacher, God, than accept responsibility for our actions or acknowledging that at times life deals us unfortunate circumstances.

 

Two renowned psychotherapists, Sigmund Freud and Arthur Adler, the latter a student of the former, disagreed on this principle.  Freud’s thinking was deterministic, believing that our past shapes our present and future behaviour narrowing the prism of individual choice.  Adler, believed strongly in the agency of the individual that alerts him to his continuous ability to make choices in the present independent of his past conditioning. The state of Israel is a testament to the Adlerian philosophy. Just over seventy years old, modern Israel develops in ways that continue to astound and amaze the world, it is truly a lesson in the aptitude of the human mind and spirit to recover. As survivors of the greatest atrocity committed to humanity, they did not bury themselves in grief, blaming, accusing and playing the victims.  Instead they focused on becoming builders, dreamers, dedicated to freedom and rekindling the light of the Jewish future for their children and grandchildren.  Rather than 'blaming' the past they invested all their energies into 'building' the future.[1]  I believe that this tension between being the victim of our pasts or the creators of our future, is one that is explored, perhaps subversively, in a strange narrative in Sefer Vayikra, a narrative that is often overlooked due to its difficult content.

 

The narrative of the ‘blasphemer’ is set in Parshat Emor which explores topics such as the laws of Terumah, the defects that prevent a person or Kohen from sacrificing and the correct type of animal for sacrifice, the prohibition of desecrating Gods name and the obligation to sanctify it and the Chagim. The common theme connecting all these topics is setting out the conditions that must be met in order that the object/person can be used as  a vehicle through which to relate and worship God.  Each vehicle must be sanctified, elevated and correctly constructed so that the relationship created between Man and God is precisely callibrated. 

Being the only one of two narratives in the book (the other being the story of the death of the sons of Aaron), it invites more questions than it does answers due to its enigmatic nature.

 

10 And the son of an Israelites woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out from the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelites woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp. 11 And the son of the Israelites 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. 12 And they put him in ward, that it might be declared unto them at the mouth of the LORD.  13 And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 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. 15 And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: Whosoever curseth his God shall bear his sin. 16 And he that blasphemed 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 blasphemed the Name, shall be put to death. 17 And he that smites any man mortally shall surely be put to death. 18 And he that smites a beast mortally shall make it good: life for life[2].

 

There are many questions that arise from this text. Firstly, why is the narrative placed here in the context of the preceding chapter that described the showbread. What is its relationship to the rest of the topics in Parshat Emor?  Who is the man and where does he 'go out from'? What was the argument about? Who is his mother Shelomit the daughter of Divri and what is her significance to the story? Why is he punished? (the text seems to suggest two reasons - the blaspheming and the striking of another man).   The ancient and modern commentators, as well as the Midrash offer a plethora of ideas, some more persuasive than others.  They range from suggesting he had 'come out' from the court of Moshe who had ruled that he had no right to encamp amongst Dan since he was not a Jew (Sifra Emor 25).  He 'went out' forfeiting his share in the world to come (Midrash Tanchuma Emor 23).  Some suggest the main crime was to blaspheme God (Rashi and Seforno), others suggesting the his sin was to quarrel and strike another Jew (Mechilta Rabbi Shimon Bay Yochai).

 

An initial reading suggests a striking parallel to a narrative that occurs in Parshat Shemot. [3] There Moshe sees an Egyptian hit an Israelite, he' sees no man' and hence metes out the justice he sees fit by hitting and consequently killing the Egyptian. The next day he sees two Israelite men arguing (the same word  ניצים is used when the Torah could have used the word ריבים to argue), an Israelite and a Egyptian and he tries to intervene seeking justice through words, the men turn to him in anger 'who put you in charge of us'.  Having recognised his failure to execute justice, or moral reasoning, Moshe flees.  I have bought a comparison chart that shows the similarities:


וַיִּגְדַּל מֹשֶׁה וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם

וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מַכֶּה אִישׁ-עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו

וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה, וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ; וַיַּךְ, אֶת-הַמִּצְרִי, וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ, בַּחוֹל.  יג וַיֵּצֵא בַּיּוֹם הַשֵּׁנִי, וְהִנֵּה שְׁנֵי-אֲנָשִׁים עִבְרִים נִצִּים; וַיֹּאמֶר, לָרָשָׁע, לָמָּה תַכֶּה, רֵעֶךָ

in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren.

13 And he went out the second day, and, behold, two men of the Hebrews were striving together; and he said to him that did the wrong: 'Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?'

וַיֵּצֵא, בֶּן-אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית

וְהוּא בֶּן-אִישׁ מִצְרִי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

וַיִּנָּצוּ, בַּמַּחֲנֶה

10 And the son of an Israelitish woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelitish woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp. 11 And the son of the Israelitish 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. 12 And they put him in ward, that it might be declared unto them at the mouth of the LORD

  

The clear linguistic and thematic parallel's strikes us immediately. Can this parallel aid us in understanding the ambiguity of this story? Using Adler’s psychological principle and addressing a certain dissonance between sanctity and morality I would like to suggest that this parallel invites a radical interpretive understanding of this narrative.

 

In the book of Shemot we are told of Moshe's upbringing, which was inconsistent to say the least.  Pulled between two cultures, two languages, two mothers, two worlds, it is unsurprising that Moshe is uncertain of his own identity.  In a Freudian reality it would be easy for Moshe to blame his ills on his early circumstances. Instead we see a man who chooses to sacrifice his privileged existence, not to abscond his responsibilities and obligations, but rather to engage in the injustice he feels so deeply in his bones.  There is no doubt in his mind, and in the mind of the reader, that the reality in Egypt was unjust and immoral.  What Moshe does may be 'illegal', but it is certainly not 'unjust' or 'immoral'.  He sees someone suffering and he intervenes to save them.  He sees two men arguing and he attempts to arbitrate between them.  Moshe is a man who lives in the present.  Adopting the Adlerian terms, he chooses to listen to his inner convictions and not be swayed by his past.  He is a man that chooses agency rather than acquiescence to circumscribed reality.

 

The incident of the Blasphemer that we read in our Parsha is complex, in many ways heart breaking and most certainly difficult to accept.  The Midrash as well as many commentators suggest that the man in question is a mamzer[4]-that his mother - Shelomit bat Divri was either raped or had an illicit relationship with an Egyptian man. [5]  If this is the case, which for our purposes we will presume it to be, than this man who has a 'double identity', feels as if he does not belong.  Much like Moshe in the Palace of Pharaoh, he does not belong in either world. He blames his mother, his father, the Jews and the laws of their God for his unfortunate circumstances.  In so many ways we cannot help but sympathise with him, 'who can blame him for feeling this way', is our instinctive response. It is not the 'fault' of his mother who may have been raped, and it is not his fault that he was born into such a status.  And yet......

 

In Parshat Shemot we see a man, Moshe, execute his own reckoning of justice that feels so ‘right’. It is a morality that is obvious, black and white, instinctively identified by us the reader. Clear, simple, unambiguous.  Good and Evil, just and unjust.  But when is the world really ever this way?  When is there a clear unabated call between good and bad? When do we know for certain that our actions are going to reap absolute good without any untoward consequences?  That is why we need sanctity coupled with morality.  That is why we require a greater power called God.  That is why we have Parshat Vayikra.  There is innate morality that we term conscience. It is an inner conviction, an initial intuition that we are quick to term 'good' or 'moral'.  And then there are situations where we are unsure of what we are to do.  There are laws of the Torah and narratives that make us flinch or recoil, we feel uncomfortable, we resort to apologetics, we try anything to make ourselves feel better about something that doesn't fit into our framework of morality.  Vayikra does talk about the good and the moral, but it also addresses the notion of the Holy and at times are seemingly incongruous, sometimes even shockingly so.   The man we encounter in our Parsha who blasphemes God and attacks a fellow person, has misunderstood the essence of Vayikra and sanctity.  To initiate a relationship with God the vehicle through which I engage in that relationship must be holy/Kadosh.  At times we understand kedusha, at other times it belongs to the realm of God. It is easy to understand that time must be sanctified for us to 'meet' with God, and less easy to comprehend why a Priest with a physical disability cannot enter the sanctuary.  It is easy to understand why the vehicle used for sanctifying God - language should not be used to curse him or conduct inappropriate discourse, it is far less easy to understand why the mamzer, created out of an unholy relationship is forever cursed.   And yet they are all part of the Torah, they all fall within the context of discussions on Kedusha and hence they must all be regarded with the same import.   The Blasphemer, blames his circumstances.  Instead of making the best of his situation, of living in the present, of engaging with his people despite his status, he gets stuck in his past.  He adopts a Freudian perspective of reality rather than moving to an Adlerian one. 

 

But in between all this, the good, the holy, the bad, the impure lies one principle on which everything rests that is non-negotiable and that is empathy. The Good and the Holy in our world are not one and the same, they can never be, and it is precisely because they are not, that we continue to fight for the 'mamzerim' and the 'agunot' and those we see as having been ‘mistreated' by the laws of the Torah, and so it should be.  The minute we feel no sympathy for that man, is the moment we have lost our humanity.  This is why I believe the parallel exists between the Blasphener and moshe; it moves us to understand that as well as the just and the good and the right, also needed is a deep sense of empathy, something Moshe, guided by his ‘mothers’, possessed in abundance. Empathy, justice and holy are not always congruent but even when they contradict we need to live in that tension, still fostering each in its entirety.  In some other reality the good and the holy are one and the same.  It is a perspective we cannot understand but Vayikra teaches us to be attuned to its existence.  Our job is to teach our youth the lesson of responsibility and choice and equally to install in them a deep and profound sense of empathy even when we may not be able to ‘change’ reality. We must show them that the greatest task by God is to be a partner in the fight against injustice, and to grapple with the tensions inherent in its search even when the solution eludes us. We must continue in the path of our teacher Moshe in fighting injustice, but equally sharing a strong commitment to the notions the holy and the sacred as laid out in Vayikra.....for there really is so much we do not and cannot possibly understand.

 

There is one midrash that does not buckle to apologetics or reasoning and presents the dilemma in all it emotive power.  Discussing the fate of mazerim it says:

 

“I further observed all the oppression that goes on under the sun: the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors—with none to comfort them” (Ecclesiastes 4:1). Daniel, the tailor, interpreted this verse as pertaining to mamzerim. “The tears of the oppressed”: their mothers transgressed, and these poor ones are excluded; this one’s father committed incest, but what has he done and why should he be affected. (There is) “none to comfort him,” (but rather they are subjected to) “the power of their oppressors”: this refers to Israel’s Great Sanhedrin, who come at them with Torah’s power and exclude them, applying (the verse,) “no mamzer shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord’” (Devarim 23:3). “None to comfort them”—the Holy One says “It is for me to comfort them.” [6]

 

As humans, it is our role to both execute justice, but also to comfort those being punished.  It is a role that at times only a Divine power is capable of doing.   I think this contradiction is the key to understanding the last verse in the narrative.  The people having heard the ruling pertaining to this man must stone him to death. The torah then relays that:

 

כג וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וַיּוֹצִיאוּ אֶת-הַמְקַלֵּל אֶל-מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, וַיִּרְגְּמוּ אֹתוֹ אָבֶן; וּבְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל עָשׂוּ, כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת-מֹשֶׁה. 

23 And Moses spoke to the children of Israel, and they brought forth him that had cursed out of the camp, and stoned him with stones. And the children of Israel did as the LORD commanded Moses.[7]

 

Why should we be told that the people did as God told them?  Ramban offers a beautiful explanation:

 

Having already related that the people obeyed Moses and immediately brought out and stones the sinner, the Torah emphasises with this additional phrase that the children of Israel acted in compliance with the Divine order given to Moses, to eliminate evil from their midst, and not motivated by hatred for the son of an Egyptian who had quarrelled with an Israelite.[8]

 

In other words Ramban is telling us that being created in the image of God, means we must see everyone in that image.  Despite the fact that he may have sinned, or caused strife within the camp, we must sympathise with him, feel for him, educate him to act differently, and simultaneously carry out God's justice.  We must not act out of anger, or revenge, but out of the search for justice and truth. 

  

I finish by returning to Adler and Freud and drawing on a final personality from the world of Psychology – the renowned psychotherapist, Victor Frank, who having experienced the worst genocide and atrocities ever committed by mankind, did not allow himself, or others, to become victims of their circumstances and instead encouraged them to find meaning and purpose that transcended their immediate conditions. Victor Frankl taught his fellow concentration camp inmates that the secret of surviving is the ability to interpret one’s circumstances and choose how to see one's reality. That even when everything has been taken from us, we still possesses a final freedom in the choice we make of how to interpret our circumstances.

This is a lesson, as the Jewish people, has allowed us to build and grown even in the face of extreme adversity. May we continue to hear this calling and find ways of fulfilling our mission in this world without losing our humanity.

Shabbat Shalom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



[1] There was a fascinating study done as to why it took so long to bring Eichmann to trial.  What the study found was that the holocaust survivors in Israel were uniterested in investing time money and energy into the search for the Nazi perpertrators, preferring instead to focus on their future.

[2] Vayikra 24

[3] Shemot 2:11

[4] An illegitimate child.  A mamzer is a child that is born as a result of an adulterous relationship by a married Jewish women, or is born in incites, or is the child of a mamzer.

[5] It is fascinating that the tone of many of the Midrashim that I encountered (Vayikra Raba 32, Piskata Zutrata Shemot 2, Midrash Tehillim 114) was that of 'blame', not of the Egyptian but rather of Shelomit. If she had not spoken 'beshalom - peacefully with the Egyptian she would not have attracted his attention. She was the only one of the people of Israel to 'marry out' etc  It is as if the Rabbis of the Midrash must present a black and white picture.  The incident is so shocking and beyond comprehension, that it needs softening at the edges.  If we can find a 'reason' that her and her son 'deserve' to be treated this way, than it is easier for us to digest.

[6] Vayikra Rabba 32:8

[7] Vayikra 24

[8] Ramban 23:24


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