Imagine a person who’s completely rejected and isolated by the entire society from the day he was born, despite constantly trying to do the right thing. What if he would snap and say something terrible? How would we react? Would we try and understand him and help him recover? Would we feel bad for him?
In the end of our Parasha we come across a story of a young man who has done a grave sin—he uttered the Name of Hashem and cursed. The consequence of his action was severe, he received the death penalty as directed by Hashem Himself.
If we look a bit into this man’s upbringing however, we might be puzzled as to why he had received such a harsh punishment.
This man was born to a woman named Shlomit Bat Divri (רש״י ויקרא כד,יא). Shlomit Bat Divri was very immodest to say the least, as she always greeted every man she met. Eventually her actions led to an Egyptian officer waking her husband early in the morning and forcefully sending him away from the house, leading to a terrible thing from which this boy was born (רש״י שמות ב,יא).
As the boy was growing he had a choice to make, would he go with his father or his mother? He decided to stick with his mother.
Although the boy could have followed his Egyptian father’s origins and live an aristocratic life, being that his father was a highly respected officer, he decided to follow his mother’s Jewish origins and be part of the deprived and tortured slave nation (רמב״ן ויקרא כד,י).
As he was growing up in such a home, we can imagine how he was treated by everyone around him and what type of childhood he must have had. For example, we can just imagine that no one would allow his kids to play with this kid who had a mother with such infamous reputation. No kindergarten or yeshiva would accept such a kid whose father was an anti-Semite and murderer.
Still, this kid didn’t leave the nation he had willingly chose to follow and continued trying to do the right thing. Going forward many years, the nation had left Egypt and were in the desert, there in the desert he tried to find a place to put up his tent—a place he can call his own. He believed that the tribe of Dan, where his mother is from, would be the correct place to be, but the people of Dan rejected him saying that in order to stay with them he must have a father from that tribe, which he didn’t. Having his mother from the tribe of Dan wasn’t going to make it. (רש״י כד,י).
He figured that he would go to Moshe’s Bet Din and surely Moshe Rabbenu would resolve this in his favor. After all, he needs to dwell somewhere, and the only roots he had were to the tribe of Dan. Much to his surprise and sorrow, Moshe ruled that the people of Dan are correct and he must remove his tent at once.
After all those years of being rejected by everyone, he broke down and sinned, as this was the final straw that broke the camel’s back. Immediately he was detained and waited to hear from Moshe of his fate, until the instructions came from Hashem saying that he should be put to death.
Let’s think how we would treat such a scenario today. When a person commits a terrible crime, we would first see if it is a crime that hurts others, such as a murder or a robbery. Then we would evaluate to see if the criminal is stable or ‘emotionally disturbed’ before punishing him for his crimes. If his actions were not harmful to others, such as merely talking or cursing, we would probably recommend some therapy, give him much love and support, and help him cope with his childhood emotional trauma. We would try to give him social support in order to build his stability.
Why then, in our story with this young man, did Hashem decide that this young man is guilty and deserves the worse punishment, although his sin did not hurt anyone and most likely he acted out of emotional illness?
Perhaps this was part of the reason Moshe Rabenu had detained him. Moshe didn’t know if this person acted well aware of his actions or mindlessly, and therefore he turned to Hashem to inform of what to do with him. Only Hashem knows what the real motivation of a person is. Hashem, Who knows the person’s history and why he behaved the way he did, could have found him guilty.
It seems that this person allowed himself to act the way he did, simply because he felt that after he sacrificed so much he deserves a different treatment. When things didn’t turn out as planned, he allowed himself to express his frustration in the most horrific way. There is no excuse to behave in such a way simply because one feels bad for himself.
We also should acknowledge that we have a real misunderstanding of what a sin really does. We think that a sin only hurts the person sinning but no one else, therefore it’s hard for us to understand why this man, who only spoke seemingly harmless words, should be punished so severely. But the reality is that a sin affects the entire world, causing much harm and destruction. Especially a sin of the great magnitude that this man was guilty of.
This article was written in cooperation with Shuva Israel