Emor (Say) Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
This week’s portion includes laws regarding the holidays as well as restrictions and instructions to the priests. The final section of the portion, however, begins with a rather unusual story:
Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. (Leviticus 24:10-11)
The people then awaited God’s judgment of this man and it was swift indeed. God commands Moses to have this man stoned and then instructs Moses that the penalty for cursing God is death.
Following this story and the accompanying instruction is a series of punishments for various injuries. What I found particularly unusual in this section, however, is that the listing of laws for the various personal injuries, for murder and for cursing God, is embedded in an actual incident. And when the instructions are concluded, Scripture concludes with the actual implementation of the punishment, the stoning, in the particular incident described.
The story itself is told in an unusual way. We don’t know the name of the man who has cursed God but we know that his mother is an Israelite while his father is Egyptian. What is the relevance of this description? We are also told the name of his mother and her tribal affiliation. Why is this relevant?
The Midrash and later commentaries noted these difficulties. Rashi, the classic 11th century commentator draws from Midrashic sources to explain the entire situation. The man in question is the child of a mixed marriage – an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father. His mother’s name is listed in order to clarify her status – she has a family and is a member of the tribe of Dan. However, the tribal affiliation of a man is based on his father’s tribe and since this man’s father is an Egyptian, he is left without a tribal identity.
The Midrash fills in the details, based on these facts as mentioned in Scripture, as follows: The man in question wants to pitch his tent with the tribe of Dan but they don’t accept him since he is not of their tribe. He argues with a man of the tribe and they approach Moses for judgment. Moses decides against him – he is a man with no tribal status, as his father is not an Israelite. The man is furious and curses God. The result is fatal.
The personal status of the curser as described in the Scripture and as explained further by the Midrash is a difficult one indeed. The Midrash further points out that he has chosen to affiliate with the Jewish people, as noted by the words “among the people of Israel” (Leviticus 24:10). But he cannot invent a tribe for himself. Without an Israelite father, that tribal status is missing. For the generation which left Egypt and the next generation which will enter the Land of Israel, this status is critical for it determines the right to territory in the Land of Israel.
Of course none of this justifies cursing God, but it does present a profound understanding of the need for national identity and the difficulties which arise when there is a mixed marriage. National identity matters. And in Biblical times, tribal identity mattered. A man whose heritage is mixed is a troubled and frustrated man. It is no coincidence that it is this man who has cursed God. For he has not found himself in God. He is not sure of who he is and, therefore, he is unable to accept his place among God’s people.
Perhaps if the man in question had truly felt a part of the Jewish people and accepted his identity as an Israelite, he would not have cursed God but would have asked Moses to help him find an appropriate solution. But in cursing God, he also proved that he hadn’t fully shed his Egyptian identity.
In the modern world, when nationality is a much more fluid concept than it used to be, and people immigrate from country to country, mixed marriage is a rarely used term. But in Judaism, it is still critical. Judaism is not just a religion – it is a nationality. And it is a faith community. The child of a mixed marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew will always be confused, will lack a clear identity and will have trouble relating to God for he will not be coming to God as a member of one community.
Director, Israel Office