In parsha Emor the Torah goes through several prescriptions of ways to be holy including who can serve in the Temple, what sacrifices are allowed, the mitzvahs of observing the biggest holidays, and more. But then the Torah portion switches to a narrative style and details the story of a man put to death for the sin of blasphemy.
Granted some might have the impression that the “Old Testament” is full of a wrathful God with sinners being judged for death left and right. However in actuality, there are only two instances in the Torah where the Jewish people actually hold court and judge a person as deserving of the death for breaking Torah law. This is one of those two times.
The Son of an Egyptian
The story in a nutshell is; a man quarreled with another Jew concerning residence in the camp. The man then enunciated the most holy name of God and all who witnessed the action brought him before Moses. At that point God decreed that he was liable to death and that all the witnesses would carry out the action of stoning the man. Not the most rainbowy of bible stories.
However there are some nuances that are illuminated by Rashi and Midrashim bringing some interesting shades to the story.
The man is referred to as the son of an Egyptian. Way back in the book of Shemos, when Moses is still wrestling with being both the Prince of Egypt and a Jew, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Jewish slave. According to sources, that Egyptian taskmaster had raped a slave woman and was then beating the slave’s husband. The child of that relationship was this man in parsha Emor.
Next interesting tidbit is when Moses famously killed the Egyptian taskmaster, he does so by uttering the holiest name of God. The name of God that this man uttered when he blasphemed was this same name.
The man was quarreling with a member of the tribe of Dan. The man’s mother was from the tribe of Dan but because his father was an Egyptian, he was not allowed to reside with the Danites because tribal lineage goes through the father. He then went to court with the Jew from Dan and the court ruled against the man. It’s when this ruling was given that he committed the blasphemous utterance.
When life Isn’t Fair
The son of an Egyptian man (who I will refer to as SEM) was in a hard situation. Because his father wasn’t a member of a tribe, SEM didn’t have a place to reside and so he had to live outside the camp. Was that fair? Probably not. But interesting enough the Torah portion also has another prescription of “unfairness”.
“Anyone of your offspring (referring to Aharon) through all their generations who have a blemish, shall not approach to offer the bread of his God. For any man who has a blemish shall not approach; a blind man or a lame man, or a man with a sunken nose, or a man who has disproportionate limbs, or a man who has a broken foot, or a broken hand, or one with overhanging eyebrows…” (and it lists a few more). (Vayikra 21:17-20)
How is it fair that Kohanim who are born with certain deformities should be disqualified from doing the divine service? The answer is, it’s not. I find it interesting that these two examples of people in unfair situations are featured in parsha Emor. After giving the disqualifications of the Kohanim, the Torah goes on to list other ways a person can still be holy. But after SEM’s unfairness, his reaction is to blaspheme God.
When things don’t go our way, there is a fierce urge to lash out. Whether it is burning bridges, telling off your boss, or saying things you know you will regret later we want to exert some sort of control in a situation where we feel powerless. But if at that moment we can take those feelings and redirect them for good, the Rabbis tell us it brings tremendous blessing. Take for example Kaddish. Should someone lose a loved one, it is customary to recite the benediction in a minyan for 11 months. But just to be clear, Kaddish isn’t a prayer. We’re not asking God to elevate the departed’s soul, nor are we pleading for anything at all. The words of the Kiddish simply say that God’s name should be blessed for all eternity. Why?
When someone is feeling the deepest hurt that comes with losing a loved one, something that clearly happened because of God’s will, our tradition tells us to bless God in spite of those feelings. It is a tremendous sanctification of God’s Name and because it is done in the merit of the departed, it has the effect of elevating their soul. But what it is really about is taking pain and channeling it to a holy purpose.
Unfortunately life isn’t always fair. We should always strive to make it fair when it is under our control, but unfortunately there are hard realities. When that’s the case we can react in one of two ways, we can accept the unfairness and recognize what we have and give thanks or we can lash out. The son of an Egyptian man chose the latter. Hopefully we will have the clarity of faith and mind to go another way.