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The God that Binds

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

 

 יּ֙ בּשּׁ֣ שׂ֔ וּ֙ בּ֣שׁ ֔ בּ֖וֹ בּ֣ שׂ֑ יּנּוּ֙ בּמּ֔ בּ֚ יּשׂ֔ ֖שׁ יּשׂ:

There are three distinct locations referred to in this verse: a) ‘he left’ [from somewhere else], b) ‘within Bnei Yisrael’, and c) ‘within the camp’. How do we reconcile these three different locations used within one verse?

Why is this man labeled both as ‘a son of a Jewish woman’ and as ‘a son of an Egyptian man’? The first label would seemingly imply that although he’s from a Jewish mother, his father, however, was not Jewish - if so, why do we need the second label? By extension, why does the second label begin with the distinction-word of ‘’ - either it could have been used as an introduction to both labels or simply omitted altogether.

The correct translation (working within the rules of [1]) of the phrase ‘ ’ is ‘and the Jewish man’. But who is this Jewish man - he wasn’t mentioned before!

 ֠יּקּ֠ בּשּׁ֨ יּשׂ֤ שּׁ֙ לּ֔ יּ֥וּ ֖וֹ שׁ֑ שׁ֥ מּ֛וֹ שׁ֥ בּדּ֖ טּ:

Why does he ‘’ and ‘’? What’s the difference between them?

Why are we only now told what his mother’s name/lineage was? Why are we told at all?

 יּנּ֖וּ בּמּשׁ֑ ֥שׁ ֖ פּ֥ ':

Why did they have to wait for God to explain it to them? It’s hard to accept that they didn’t know that this was a capital crime (albeit an unprecedented event) and that they needed to wait for God to create the new law, because:

Most times in the Torah, when there is an unprecedented situation, God immediately calls out to Moshe with instructions; so why are we specifically told here that they waited for that Divine response?

In context of the later episode of the wood collector, the language used is ‘ ’ which is a much better syntax to convey a lack of knowledge of a particular halakha; here, it merely states that they waited until God explained. So, why is it that we are told that they needed God’s input here?

The transgressor of this episode is introduced to us through two labels: ‘a son of a Jewish woman’ and ‘a son of an Egyptian man’. From the first label we already understand that although his mother was Jewish, his father was not. The second label, introduced with the specifying word ‘’, adds on that not only was his father not a Jew, but he was specifically an Egyptian. This immediately reminds us of the law stated in Devarim (23:8-9) that Egyptians are not allowed to join the Jewish nation until the third generation. The Torah boldly paints for us the conflicting character of this man: on the one hand he was born from a Jewish mother; on the other hand, his father is specifically prohibited from joining the Jewish people. And now the three disparate locations of this verse are reconciled. ‘He left’ from where he was before, an outsider, separated from the rest of the ‘proper Jews’ and on that day entered ‘within the Jewish people’ - looking to be similarly included[2]. Interestingly, he encountered no issue or friction at this stage;  however, when he then attempted to be included ‘within The Camp’ - the very camp which the Torah has described numerous times as the place where anyone or anything unacceptable, impure, or improper is not allowed to enter - that is when ‘the fighting’ began[3]. And with whom? ‘ ’ - The quintessential Jewish man, ‘the’ proper Jew, the man who rightfully belongs ‘in the camp’. This introductory verse establishes the clash between the outsider who wants total access to a world he’s not naturally included in and an insider who truly belongs in this world, stepping up to defend its exclusivity!

”, when used in the context of speaking, would convey a declaring or proclaiming[4]; while ‘’ means to curse, or weaken () the recipient of the curse. According to these definitions, the actions of the man in this verse would be read as follows: ‘and the son of the Jewish woman proclaimed the name of God and cursed’. From this understanding we would maintain that truly this half-Jew, in his struggle with the full-Jew, didn’t curse God, but used God’s name to curse his opponent[5]. Although they were physically fighting, this ‘interloper’ decided to take the struggle to the next level - employing spiritual ammunition - and employed God’s name as a weapon against the Jew. And it is only then that the people take him to Moshe - the physical fighting between two Jews wasn’t an issue worthy of Divine adjudication; however, the fact that this outsider then defamed the name of God in his attempt to overcome his ‘God’s nation-brother’ adversary was unacceptable! This is not what a true member of God’s nation does: in his struggle to prove his place amongst the Jewish nation he so dramatically undermined the very mission he was looking to achieve.

So why don’t they kick him out right then? If his actions so clearly expressed that he didn’t ‘belong’, why do they feel the need to bring him to Moshe for judgement? This is why his mother’s name is mentioned at the end of the verse. On the one hand he defamed God’s name in his fight with a Jew - an ‘Outsider’s’ move, however, they bring him to Moshe because on the other hand, he is technically an ‘Insider’, for his mother is from the Tribe of Dan - a legal national belonging! And this is why they must wait for God to explain the fate of this sinner: they know an Egyptian convert is not included; they also know the son of a Tribal descendant is included; but what was unprecedented - and therefore needed Divine clarification concerning: a person who was a product of both these origins - was he included or not?

And what is God’s answer?

 וֹ֣ לּ֗ וּ֙ מּ֔ ֧וּ שּׁ֛ ֖ שׁ֑וֹ ֥וּ ֖וֹ כּ:

God declares that the blasphemer must be killed. At first glance, God’s answer doesn’t seem to address the larger issue. The people - and Moshe - weren’t really in doubt as to whether this person did something wrong, but rather whether he had a rightful claim of full-membership even in The Camp. However a closer look at this verse’s wording and the surrounding text reveals the true significance of God’s response to His people. The sinner is now labeled only in context of his crime ‘the blasphemer’ - not his nationality (as he had been labeled previously three times in two verses); the full-Jews who brought him to justice are referred to as ‘the ones who heard him’ - again, in reference to his crime - and not merely as ‘them’, the full-Jews within the camp who had witnessed the crime and brought him to Moshe. Additionally, when God describes the punishment for one who proclaims God’s name inappropriately, He concludes with “ ” - ‘it is the same [punishment] for a convert as it is for a Jew by birth’.  So, in fact, between the lines of the ‘he must die’ response, God has also answered the larger question: he is in fact to be considered fully as one of the nation. Ironically, in his crime he obtains the complete inclusion he was fighting for.

Before the actual sentencing is carried out (in verse 23), the Torah enumerates a collection of social laws (17-22) already mentioned earlier in Shemot (chapters 21-22)! Even stranger is that none of them mention cursing or transgressing against God. So why are they repeated here? There are two differences between the list presented here and the one in Shemot: 1) instead of using the more nationally nuanced label of ‘ ’, ‘(Jewish) man and his brethren’, here in Emor, it only uses the more generic, a-national label  of ‘’; 2) only in Emor does the Torah conclude with the statement “ ”. How do we explain these differences? Following the established theme, even within the context of the laws concerning only social infractions (as opposed to the Divine sin of blasphemy mentioned in the prior verses), the mention of a person’s specific national label is purposefully minimized and instead replaced with an equalizing ‘man’ label[6]. And, just like with Divine transgressions (where it also had used the similar phrase of ‘ ’), even in the context of social crimes, the convert is to be treated the same as the Jew by birth. The lesson we are given to learn from the Torah’s recording of this section in its entirety is that, for God and His nation, the focus is not on the people and their background but on the quality of the Divine relationship he or she desires to achieve. Through the iniquitous use of God’s name in looking to establish his inclusion into God’s nation, the blasphemer defied the very vehicle with which to obtain his goal. One cannot be a significant part of God’s nation and yet reject the very God that defines that nation’s unique national character. The same is true within the realm of social law - a context with a seeming ‘absence of God’ - for at the end of the section which listed these laws, the Torah states: ‘ ' ’ - the reason why each and every member of the Jewish nation is equally held responsible for another’s property and livelihood is because I am the Lord, your God. For not only is the inclusion of a Jew into his nation defined by his individual connection with God, but the interpersonal relationships between the Jews themselves are also specifically defined by the context of that Divine auspices.

There is one more question that must be addressed: why is this whole scene here? Previous to the recording of the blasphemer episode, the Torah had listed the holidays and the rules concerning the lighting of the Mishkan’s and the providing of the bread for the . Why then does the Torah break from these halakhot and record this self-contained narrative? Why is that previous section seemingly a necessary introduction to the blasphemer story (and its lesson)?

The unique character of the Jewish holidays is found in its introductory verse: ‘ '... ’. What this line conveys is the unique partnership between God and His people in determining the nation’s calendar: God created the holidays which establish the Divine framework of His people’s existence, but the nation is given the responsibility and privilege to determine its timing.

The sections that immediately follow the holidays are:

 בּ֥ ' שׁ֥ לּ:  ֞ בּ֣ שׂ֗ ֨וּ ֜ שׁ֣ ֥ ֛ כּ֖ מּ֑וֹ ֥ ֖ תּ:  וּ֩ ֨ ֜ בּ֣ וֹ֗ ֩ ֨וֹ ֜ ֧ בּ֛ ֥ ' תּ֑ קּ֥ וֹ֖ :  ֚ מּ֣ טּ֔ ֖ נּ֑וֹ ֥ ' תּ:  

    תּ֣ ֔ ֣ ֔הּ שׁתּ֥ שׂ֖ לּ֑וֹ שׁ֙ שׂ֔ ֖ לּ֥ :  שׂתּ֥ וֹ֛ שׁתּ֥ ֖וֹ שׁ֣שׁ מּ֑ ֛ שּׁ֥ טּ֖ ֥ ':  תּ֥ מּ֖ ֣ כּ֑ ֤ לּ֨֙ כּ֔ שּׁ֖ ':  בּ֨וֹ שּׁבּ֜ בּ֣וֹ שּׁבּ֗ ֛נּוּ ֥ ' תּ֑ ֥ בּשׂ֖ בּ֥ וֹ:  ֙ ֣ וּ֔ ֖וּ בּ֣וֹ ֑שׁ כּ֡ ֩שׁ֩ שׁ֨ ֥וּ ֛וֹ שּׁ֥ ' וֹ:

What is quickly apparent from both descriptions of these mitzvot is the total inclusiveness of the people who are to be involved in the fulfillment of these obligations. For the eternal light, Bnei Yisrael are to bring oil to Moshe which will then be used in lamp which Aharon will set up. In the description of the bread, Moshe is to take and bake the bread and place the frankincense on top of it; also, this bread is to ‘come’ from Bnei Yisrael and given to Aharon and his sons to eat. Everyone is to be involved, everyone must play their part in setting up these systems specifically ‘ '’ (mentioned four times)! And, if we put this idea together with the message of the holidays which immediately preceded these mitzvot, the message is appreciated as follows: the national identity of Bnei Yisrael and the eternal unity of all its members is defined by and perpetuated through an active partnership with God (holidays) and the inclusive worship of Him through his mitzvot (light, bread).

And now we can answer our previous question as to why the recording of the blasphemer event is specifically placed here. For, within this section too there is an example of an active relating to God directly - blasphemer - (similar to that which is described in the previous holidays section) and an all-inclusive social interaction before God - social laws concluding with ‘ ' ’ - (as in the description of the two mitzvot). But, of course, in this section it is through a rejection of God, not a partnership, and transgressing His commands, not following them. And in light of this ‘additional’ perspective, the message conveyed through the first section is beautifully strengthened: the national identity of Bnei Yisrael and the eternal unity of all its members is defined by and perpetuated through their continued consciousness of God and the lives they then live within that acknowledged Divine context - whether positively or negatively, constructively or destructively, directly or societally; God is the sole underlying definition to Bnei Yisrael’s true national existence.

 

[1]    That the ‘' ’ is placed before the second word.

[2]    This idea was inspired by an approach of R. Hirsch.

[3]    The word “” always refers to a physical fighting. (See Shemot 2: 13 and 21:22)

[4]    From the root ... - drilling, penetrating (see Melakhim 2 12:10); a drilling with words as it were.

[5]    And logically, why would this person choose to curse God during his fight? Where would that even come from?! This is not to say that proclaiming () God’s name in any situation is not a sin in itself (as it will be separately mentioned in the upcoming verses as a sin worthy of stoning); in this context however, the true crime was using this ‘sin’ to damage () a ‘fellow’ Jew.

[6]    This is of course not referring to the halakhik truths concerning the payments for damaging non-Jews’ property vs. damaging Jews’ property, but rather the conceptional significance of the labels which focus not on the national ‘(Jewish) man and his brethren’ relationship but rather on the less nationally focused ‘(Jewish) man vs. (Jewish) man’ relationship.

 

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