Parashat Emor: We were all strangers

The primary message of our redemption from Egypt is that we must "love the stranger."

The biblical portion Emor concludes with a strange and almost mythical tale about what appears to be the son of a mixed marriage ("the child of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man") who picks a fight with an Israelite and publicly blasphemes God. The divine punishment meted out to him is that those who heard his blasphemy must place their hands on his head and pelt him with stones (Lev. 24:10-23). This rather terse biblical account seems almost awe-struck by the enormity of the crime; it delineates the same capital punishment in three separate verses (Lev. 24:14, 16 and 23). The literal story as told is also fraught with textual difficulties. Why tell a gossipy tale of mixed marriage as the prelude to the law of the blasphemer? Why not simply record the crime and punishment, in the usual biblical style? And if the background is to be told, why not give all the details? We are left with many gaps, especially as to the background of the individuals who intermarried and the attitude of the son toward his real identity. Secondly, why do the people who hear the blasphemous words place their hands on the head of the criminal (24:14)? Such a "laying on of hands" in the Bible generally expresses either a conferral of authority (such as when Moses passed his authority to Joshua, Numbers 27:23) or a transference of guilt (as when the high priest places the sins of the nation on the head of the scapegoat, Lev. 16:21, 22). Neither situation seems appropriate for the blasphemer. Finally, the biblical account concludes the description of the punishment with the seemingly superfluous phrase "he shall be pelted, yes, be pelted, by the entire witness congregation, stranger as well as citizen" (24:16). Moreover, the very next verses seem to be presenting a totally disparate crime: "If a man smites the soul of another, he shall die, yes die" (24:17). They go on to record the laws of smiting animals and causing blemishes to other individuals, and then add a kind of obiter dictum which hardly appears apropos to the subject; "There shall be one law for you, stranger as well as citizen, for I am the Lord your God" (24:22). Finally the chapter concludes by returning to the blasphemer, who is to be removed from the encampment and pelted with stones (24:23). Why all this extraneous material in the midst of the tale of the blasphemer? I believe that the Bible is endeavoring to explain what might cause an individual Jew to publicly blaspheme the Lord who has just taken the Israelites out of Egypt with such wonders and miracles, and to commit a transgression from which he derives no "pleasure of the moment" (as in the case of cohabitation with Midianite women or the orgiastic dancing associated with the Golden Calf) but only succeeds in expressing his anger, rebellion and disillusionment. We have already seen in the case of the patriarch Jacob that only when he discovered and accepted his own proud identity, only when he managed to free himself from his obsession with the hands of Esau which were wreaking havoc within the "wholehearted man, dweller in tents" which was his real persona could he truly accept "the Lord God of Israel" and merit the name Israel. (Indeed, each of us receives our basic identity, certainly in the most formative stages of our lives, from our parents, from their sense of identity and from the way in which they relate to each other and to us). The midrash, cited by Rashi, gives us a fascinating insight into the parents of this Israelite: His Egyptian father was the taskmaster who smote the Hebrew slave and was in turn smitten by Moses; apparently his self-image was severely damaged, and he yearned for acceptance by the Hebrews! His mother, Shelomith the daughter of Dibri from the tribe of Dan, was constantly chattering (dibur is speech), greeting everyone in sight again and again ("shalom lach, shalom lach," Shlomit would prattle). She, too desperately sought acceptance from everyone around her, and became easy prey for the sexually promiscuous. Two such parents, who may well have married for the wrong reasons and came from two very different cultures, could hardly have given their son a strong sense of identity as a proud child of Israel. The midrash reinforces this idea. Picking up on the phrase, "the son of the Israelite woman went out...," the midrash, cited by Rashi, asks: "From where did he go out? R. Levi says, 'He went out from his world' of Judaism." Despite the fact that his being the son of a Hebrew woman made him a Hebrew by Jewish law, the presence of an Egyptian father (even though the midrash says he converted) caused him to be seen as an outsider. He neither felt himself to be a full Jew, nor was he accepted by other Jews as a full Jew. The midrash goes on: "He went out [frustrated] from Moses's religious court. He wanted to establish his tent in the encampment of the tribe of Dan [from his mother's side]," but he was rebuffed - the tribal inheritance followed the male lineage. "When Moses sided with the decision of the tribe, he went out and blasphemed" (Leviticus Rabba 33, 3). This young man, certainly an Israelite from a halachic legal perspective, yearned for acceptance; instead he was rejected. His fight with an Israelite was against the Danites who removed his tent from the encampment and his sense of alienation from the Israelites caused him to feel alienated from, and rejected by, the God of Israel as well. Indeed it is almost natural for us to strike out against those whom we perceive as having struck out against us! The Talmud similarly teaches that when Timna, a Mediterranean princess, was rejected in her quest for conversion by our patriarchs, she became mistress to Eliphaz (son of Esau) and bore him Amalek (B.T. Sanhedrin 99); Amalek became Israel's archenemy. Rejection breeds rejection, and thus the divine imperative that the rejecting Israelite community must place its hands on the head of the blasphemer because they are thereby acknowledging their sin of rejection. The blasphemer becomes the community's scapegoat. The primary message of our redemption from Egypt is that we must "love the stranger [the other]" because we were strangers in Egypt. Hence this biblical passage emphasizes that the stranger must be treated as a full citizen, and that rejecting any human being is tantamount to smiting his soul. Only when we truly accept the stranger will God truly accept us as His redeemed people! The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.