This is the saddest story I know.
It is a story that gets told in fragments, mostly through the commentary of Rashi. But it begins, abruptly – and ends savagely – in the text of the Torah, here in this week’s parsha.
Parshat Emor is, like much of Leviticus, mostly full of laws, one after the other. Notably, it contains the first major treatment of the Jewish calendar, laying out all the festivals in order. In fact, that’s just where we are in the reading, when, out of nowhere, appears this strange little piece of narrative:
The son of an Israelite woman – and he was the son of an Egyptian man – went out among the Children of Israel. And this son of the Israelite woman and another Israelite man fought in the camp. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced The Name, and cursed it. And they brought him to Moses. The name of his mother was Shlomit bat Divri of the Tribe of Dan. They placed him under guard to clarify the matter.
God spoke to Moses, and said, “Take the blasphemer out of the camp, and everyone who heard him should place their hands upon his head, and the entire congregation shall stone him.” (Leviticus 24:10-15)
וַיֵּצֵא, בֶּן–אִשָּׁה יִשְׂרְאֵלִית, וְהוּא בֶּן אִיש מִצְרִי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וַיִּנָּצוּ, בַּמַּחֲנֶה, בֶּן הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית, וְאִישׁ הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִי. וַיִּקֹּב בֶּן–הָאִשָּׁה הַיִּשְׂרְאֵלִית אֶת–הַשֵּׁם, וַיְקַלֵּל, וַיָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ, אֶל–מֹשֶׁה; וְשֵׁם אִמּוֹ שְׁלֹמִית בַּת–דִּבְרִי, לְמַטֵּה–דָן. וַיַּנִּיחֻהוּ, בַּמִּשְׁמָר, לִפְרֹשׁ לָהֶם, עַל–פִּי ה׳
וַיְדַבֵּר ה׳, אֶל–מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. הוֹצֵא אֶת–הַמְקַלֵּל, אֶל–מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה, וְסָמְכוּ כָל–הַשֹּׁמְעִים אֶת–יְדֵיהֶם, עַל–רֹאשׁוֹ; וְרָגְמוּ אֹתוֹ, כָּל–הָעֵדָה.
Now, any mention of stoning in the Torah is hard to read. It is a punishment whose violence is so stark and primitive, so totally out of step with the sensibilities of modern civilization.
But this stoning in particular seems personal, even vindictive. What’s going on here? Why are we introduced to this nameless man before we see his crime? What is he so angry about? And why does God make such a point of having him killed in this public ceremony? The whole thing is hauntingly mysterious.
So let’s turn to Rashi, who will give us some of the backstory, bit by bit. And I warn you ahead of time: each step we take with Rashi will bring us deeper and deeper into dark places…
Step 1, then: Why were these men fighting to begin with? Rashi gives us an answer:
He went out – From where did he ‘go out’…? He went out of Moses’ court, with a losing verdict. He had tried to plant his tent in the camp of the Tribe of Dan. They said to him, “What is your claim to this place?” He said to them, “I come from the daughters of Dan.” They said to him, “It is written: ‘Each man dwells under his banner, assigned by the house of his father.’” So he went into the Court of Moses [to protest], but he lost his case. So he got up and cursed!
ויצא בן אשה ישראלית – מהיכן יצא…? מבית דינו של משה יצא מחוייב. בא ליטע אהלו בתוך מחנה דן, אמרו לו מה טיבך לכאן, אמר להם מבני דן אני. אמרו לו (במדבר ב) איש על דגלו באותות לבית אבותם כתיב. נכנס לבית דינו של משה ויצא מחוייב, עמד וגדף
This man was just looking for a place to pitch his tent, a place to rest in the desert encampment. So he came, naturally, to his closest relatives – the tribe of his mother. But they turned him away. Because although membership in the nation could be had through maternal lineage, belonging to one of the twelve tribes was a status that came from one’s father.
But this man’s father was Egyptian. In other words, he had no tribal connection. And so he had nowhere to be. He had left Egypt, with his people, in the dark night of the tenth plague, crossed through the walls of the Red Sea in their midst, and stood at their side at Sinai to receive God’s revelation. And now, suddenly, no one would have him; having come this far to be with his people, he was all alone.
Imagine him, wandering around, from camp to camp, seeking entry, and being turned away from every group. And for what reason? A consequence of his birth. A situation he had no control over. He was an outcast by virtue of nothing he had done, but simply because of who he was.
So he tried to protest, tried to seek justice. Only to find rejection from the highest authority in this new nation. One certainly begins to understand where his curse came from.
Oh, but it gets worse.
Step 2: Who was this Egyptian father of his, Rashi?
The son of an Egyptian man – This was the Egyptian that Moses killed.
בן איש מצרי – הוא המצרי שהרגו משה
Back in Exodus (Ch. 2), we saw Moses go out to see the conditions of slavery in Egypt and:
He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsman. He looked this way and that and, seeing there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. (2:11-12)
וַיַּרְא אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מַכֶּה אִישׁ–עִבְרִי מֵאֶחָיו. וַיִּפֶן כֹּה וָכֹה, וַיַּרְא כִּי אֵין אִישׁ; וַיַּךְ, אֶת–הַמִּצְרִי, וַיִּטְמְנֵהוּ, בַּחוֹל.
So now, Rashi, picking up on the specific reference to “The Egyptian” here and there, makes a connection and tells us that the Egyptian who was beating the slave in Exodus must be the same nameless Egyptian who fathered our poor tribeless fellow in Leviticus.
But what does that mean? It means that when this man went into court, seeking his place amongst the Children of Israel – seeking, essentially, a family – the man who ruled that that he could have none of that… was the same man who had killed his father.
This is beyond trauma. This borders on psychological torture. He must have been out of his mind, trembling with bitterness and rage. So yes, I see how the curse could form in his heart. I see how it could erupt from his lips. Rejected by all, finally condemned by your father’s killer – how could anyone endure this fate? Could this story be any more tragic?
Oh, but it can.
Step 3: So how did this Egyptian come to father an Israelite boy, anyway?
One more Rashi, this one from back in the Exodus story where Moses saw:
An Egyptian man beating a Hebrew – … This Hebrew was the husband of Shlomit bat Divri. The Egyptian took a liking to her, and one night, he came and woke up the Hebrew and dragged him out of his house. Then the Egyptian came back to the house and had sex with [Shlomit], while [in the darkness] she thought it was her husband. The Hebrew returned and understood what had happened. And when the Egyptian realized that the Hebrew knew, he began to beat him and torture him all day long.
מכה איש עברי – …בעלה של שלומית בת דברי היה, ונתן בה עיניו, ובלילה העמידו והוציאו מביתו, והוא חזר ונכנס לבית ובא על אשתו, כסבורה שהוא בעלה, וחזר האיש לביתו והרגיש בדבר, וכשראה אותו מצרי שהרגיש בדבר, היה מכהו ורודהו כל היום
Oh, dear God.
So it turns out our homeless, fatherless, tribeless wanderer was actually the product of a rape. His own ambiguous status was not only a fact of his existence, beyond his control; it was also the consequence of a terrible, terrible crime.
Here then, stands before you a man whose mother was raped, whose adoptive father was humiliated, whose biological father was killed, who had no tribe, no place to lay his head, no recourse in court and, seemingly, no mercy from his God – the God whom he had left everything for and followed into the desert.
So yes, yes, I understand how he could have come to curse God! I get it. I daresay I might have done it myself.
But my sympathy is no help. My understanding cannot save him. His fate is sealed. He is to die. For God will tolerate no desecration of God’s Holy Name. Take him out of the camp – the very place in which he sought to dwell – and stone him.
I am at a loss. I cannot bear this. It is too much.
I searched in vain for some commentary that would redeem this story, some great insight that would make sense of it all. I found no consolation. There is, it seems, only sadness in this tale.
The one glimmer of meaning, however, that perhaps points us toward a way out of this darkness, is a curious detail back in the text of the Torah itself. Remember that when God has the blasphemer taken out to be stoned, God specifically required that:
…everyone who heard him should place their hands upon his head…
וְסָמְכוּ כָל–הַשֹּׁמְעִים אֶת–יְדֵיהֶם, עַל–רֹאשׁוֹ
This is unusual. Certainly it is not required of every capital punishment. And standing where we are in the Torah, in the midst of Leviticus, the laying of hands cannot help but make us think of a scene from two parshot ago, in the Yom Kippur ceremony. Remember:
Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat and confess over it all the sins and crimes of the Children of Israel, whatever their transgressions…Thus shall the goat carry on it all of their sins to an inaccessible region, and the goat shall be sent out into the wilderness. (Leviticus 16:21-22)
וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת–שְׁתֵּי יָדָו, עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי, וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת–כָּל–עֲונֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת–כָּל–פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל–חַטֹּאתָם…וְנָשָׂא הַשָּׂעִיר עָלָיו אֶת–כָּל–עֲונֹתָם, אֶל–אֶרֶץ גְּזֵרָה; וְשִׁלַּח אֶת–הַשָּׂעִיר, בַּמִּדְבָּר.
Over there, at least, the symbolism of the priests laying his hands upon the goat is a transference of the sins of the community onto this “scapegoat.”
Could it be, then, that when God asks “everyone who heard him” to lay their hands upon this cursing sinner before he is put to death, God is forcing them to acknowledge their own sins, their own part in his damnation?
Because sure, by the strict letter of the law, he is guilty of a crime that merits the death penalty. Just as by the strict letter of the law, no tribe had to allow him to camp with them.
But why didn’t they?
How could they have turned him away? The law was on their side – but where was their compassion?
And where were we when his mother was raped? Did we do everything we could to support him and his family in the aftermath of that tragedy?
And where were we that day when he wandered from camp to camp, weary, seeking refuge? Did we open our tents and offer him some shade and a meal?
And where were we when he received the ruling from Moses’ court? Did we rush to console him and offer him alternatives?
“Everyone heard him,” but no one listened.
If he had no home, it is because we gave him none. If he cursed, it is because we allowed him to feel cursed. If he is guilty, then we are guilty.
Perhaps, then, despite the bleak final judgment that ends this tale, somewhere in it lies an injunction also for us. When we see someone go this far astray, so that he is ready to curse everything we believe in, and to destroy himself in the process, then our responsibility is not simply to condemn him, but also to turn and painfully ask of ourselves:
How did we fail him? How did we fail him?