Why would two members of Bnei Yisrael enter into a quarrel for no apparent reason?
Why does the Torah repeat civil laws which have been previously listed? These are just two of the many questions which arise on encountering the strange episode at the end of this week’s parsha, the story of the “mekallel”, the blashphemer.
“The son of an Israelite woman who was the son of an Egyptian man departed within the children of Israel; a fight ensued between the son of the Egyptian and the son of the Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman proclaimed the name of G-d and blasphemed, after which he was brought to Moshe; his mother’s name was Shlomit the son of Divri from the tribe of Dan. He was placed under guard, in order to clarify for them from Hashem (what was to be done with him).” [Vayikra 24:10-12]
The mefarshim explain from where this man departed and what the nature of the quarrel was.
Rashi, quoting Vayikra Rabbah suggests that he left his world or rather he will leave this world by the end of the episode. This comment is somewhat cryptic and requires further elaboration which we will not attempt to do in the context of this shiur.
The second suggestion offered by Rashi is that he departed from the previous section in the Torah. This tells of the mitzvah of the show bread which adorned the table in the mishkan and was replaced once a week. This man of questionable lineage found it amusing that G-d was served bread which was a week old. This explanation helps one understand the context of this story but there is no textual proof that this was indeed this man’s cause for blasphemy.
Rashi then cites the midrash Torat Kohanim: “He departed from the court of Moshe where he had lost his case. He had wanted to pitch his tent in the campsite of the tribe of Dan, claiming that he was descended from one of the daughters of Dan. He was told that tribal lineage goes through the father and “You do not belong here”. He went to the court of Moshe, the ruling went against him, so he stood and blasphemed.”
This final theory answers both the question as to the point of his departure and gives the reason for the quarrel. It also draws upon the mention of his mother’s tribe to find the basis for this man’s grievance.
However, the Torah continues by stating the ruling with regards to this case and then listing a number of civil laws pertaining to capital and monetary damages. Are these indeed relevant to tribal disputes? Is this the obvious response to the result of a disillusioned petitioner to Moshe’s court and his ensuing anger at G-d?
It would seem clear that the key to this entire episode lies in this man’s lineage. After all the Torah goes to great lengths to state exactly who his parents were. This is not the case in the parallel story, that of the man who gathered wood on Shabbat, also a capital offence. (Bamidbar 15:32-36) In that case we are offered no clue as to the identity of the sinner. Here too the blasphemer’s name is not divulged but his lineage is, and this in direct contrast to the “totally” Israelite man.
Ramban alludes to the listing of this man’s family background and explains that despite the fact that affiliation with the Jewish people is dependant on the mother, the child of a mixed relationship such as the one described here was viewed as somewhat deficient and was not allowed to marry a Kohen. The phrase “within Bnei Yisrael” means that he in fact converted; not that conversion was required in this case but that he did indeed choose to follow in his mother’s path and include himself amongst the Jewish nation.
On a closer look at the text we find that the quarrel took place between this man of questionable lineage and “the Israelite man”. The phrase the Israelite man is a little confusing. Which Israelite man? The use of the definite article implies that we are referring to a previously mentioned character. But this is not the case. Why then does the Torah use the prefix “ha” (the)?
Based on the comments of Ramban in tandem with our recent insight we could suggest that the “blasphemer” actually was fighting with all of Bnei Yisrael and this Israelite man was merely the one member who represented or symbolized the entire community. “The Israelite man” refers to all Israelite men who did not afford him regular status amongst the people despite his maternal linkage to the tribe of Dan and despite his attempts to affiliate himself with the mainstream. This returns us to the statement of Torat Kohanim in Rashi – it seems from Moshe’s ruling that he could not encamp with the tribe of Dan, but where was he to pitch his tent? In frustration at his social status as an outcast and out of anger at a religion which, in his opinion was stacked against outsiders, he turned towards G-d and blamed Him. He blasphemed.
If this is what happened, and it would seem to be entirely plausible from the text of the Torah itself, is the blasphemer justified? Does he get a lighter sentence for his crime against the Almighty. The Torah answers this quite categorically. No, most definitely not. Blasphemy is punished with death by stoning.
However, having established the basis for the fight that ensued in the camp we can better understand the list of civil laws which follow this event:
“One who names (and blasphemes) the name of Hashem shall be put to death, all the congregation shall stone him; both convert and citizen, if they blaspheme they shall be put to death. One who smites another man shall be put to death. One who smites an animal must pay, soul for a soul……… One system of justice you will have for citizen and convert alike, for I am the Lord your G-d.” (Vayikra24:16-22)
Why does the Torah emphasize the citizen and convert? (It might be correct to translate the word “ger” as sojourner but it would seem that the obvious meaning, as in similar cases in the Torah, is convert.) The answer would appear to be that the attempt to differentiate between citizen and convert is what led to this unfortunate episode. Although the Torah makes it perfectly clear that the blasphemer must be put to death there would seem to be a warning to Am Yisrael not to emphasize these differences any longer. This entire event could have been avoided had the man with questionable lineage been treated differently. He may not officially be part of the tribe of Dan but he has to be welcome somewhere. This would seem to be yet another occasion where the Torah emphasizes the need to look after those with a different background from the rest of the community. Interestingly, the mitzvah to love the “ger” and the prohibition against oppressing the convert is found in both Parshat Kedoshim (Vayikra19:33-34) and Parshat Behar (Vayikra 25:35) the two parshiot before and after our parsha, demonstrating a recurring theme towards the end of Sefer Vayikra.
The final verse of the parsha states:
“Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael, they took the blasphemer out of the camp and stoned him; and bnei Yisrael did as Hashem had commanded Moshe.” (Vayikra 24:23)
The concluding statement seems unnecessary. The Torah explicitly states that Bnei Yisrael put the offender to death. Why does the Torah repeat that Bnei Yisrael did as Hashem commanded Moshe?
Ibn Ezra and Chizkuni both state that this phrase refers to the fact that from that day on Bnei Yisrael acted in accordance with the restated laws. Until now there had been no case which required the enactment of capital punishment. On the contrary the previous historical narrative recorded in the Torah describes the death of the two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, in which the punishment was carried out by Hashem Himself! Only after this event, and the resulting stoning of the sinner, did Bnei Yisrael realize their duty to exact punishment where such measures were appropriate. This is what is implied in the concluding phrase of the parsha.
Rabbeinu HaSeforno has a different suggestion. He explains the final statement as teaching us the following:
“They did not stone him because of hatred towards a convert and that he had fought with a citizen, rather they (Bnei Yisrael) did so in order to not stray from the commandments.”
It is clear from Seforno’s comments that the concern of incorrect attitude towards the convert was apparent and it was that outlook which the Torah specifically negates by equating convert and citizen in civil and religious law, “ca’ger ca’ezrach”.
We can only hope and pray that this important lesson has indeed been internalized.
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