November 16, 2018

Our place in this world

The ancient rabbis were astute psychologists. They reflected on the inner life, not through theories, but through narratives, especially their analyses of and
speculations on the narratives in the Torah.

Let’s take a look at a bit of rabbinic commentary on one brief, strange and violent passage from this week’s Torah portion (I am translating as close to the Hebrew as possible — in the original, it is a jarring text):

“The son of an Israelite woman — he was the son of an Egyptian among the Israelites — went out and they fought in the camp — the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man. And he blasphemed — the son of the Israelite woman — and he cursed, and they brought him before Moses. His mother’s name was Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan. And they put him under guard, to clarify God’s word” (Leviticus 24:10-12).

God’s word was made very clear in the next verse: Moses orders the man who blasphemed to be stoned to death. And then from that incident, the law was made clear — blasphemers shall bear their sin and be executed. The reader, however, is left unsettled. What is not made clear is what drove this man to suicide by execration. Why did he blaspheme, knowing what the likely result would be? Put in a larger perspective, why do any of us do the destructive things we do?

The Midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Torah) addresses the question as to why this man blasphemed by starting back in the story of Moses, when he went out from the palace to be among his people, saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite, and then killed that Egyptian taskmaster. According to the Midrash, there is a backstory.

One day this Egyptian taskmaster sent the Israelites out to work, and when they left, he raped one of their wives — this was Shlomit bat Divri (the mother of the blasphemer). Her husband, the Midrash tells us, came back home unexpectedly, and discovered the Egyptian taskmaster leaving his home. The surprised taskmaster began beating the Israelite man mercilessly — that is when Moses stepped in, killing the Egyptian. Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan bore the son of the Egyptian.

Years later, the Israelites were commanded to organize themselves under the banners of the various tribes. When the son of Shlomit attempted to muster with the tribe of Dan, he was rejected — the law says “by your fathers’ houses.” The son of Shlomit was a Danite by his mother, not his Egyptian father, so was not eligible to be part of the tribe of Dan. He took the case to Moses, who had to reject the claim — the law, given by God, was clear: tribal identity is established through the father.

And then, one of the Midrashim tells us, he “went out” of the court, got into a fight and cursed God’s name.

I find this version of the Midrash to be profound for many reasons. This version seems to focus on the tragedy into which he was cast — through no fault of his own, nor of his mother, he was an outsider in a system that had no place for him.

Tragedy may be understood as life unraveling, our lives going wrong. Some state of affairs for which we have yearned or to which we have become deeply attached, is taken from us. Tragedy is a subjective experience. No objective life circumstance determines completely how we will respond. I recall years ago when I used to teach a course at USC on the Holocaust, how surprised the students were to learn that going through the Holocaust was not determinative of a person’s religious beliefs. Some believers became atheists, some atheists became believers; for some, their religious views did not change drastically.

I have known people who have suffered what objectively might be described as relatively minor disappointments of ego, but who have not been able to grieve well. They attack others, life or God in a destructive fury. I know of others — certainly the wisest people I know — who seem to have a mature grasp on the rich and uneven textures of human life, who understand the stages and states of people and organizations, who are able to metabolize hurt with a knowing heart.

The son of Shlomit, it seems, could not bear his exclusion, his being stigmatized any longer — he ended up hating the Divine. I see him as I think the ancient rabbis saw him — as being deeply attached to something he could not have: to be accepted, to find his place, his home.

Even more deeply, perhaps, the ancient rabbis were ruminating on a tension of their own. How does a tradition so focused in ethnicity and lineage find a place for the outsider? As they created the Midrash about the son of Shlomit, the ancient rabbis were very likely expressing their struggle as they witnessed the psychological pain of the outsiders whom they certainly encountered.

This Midrash takes me in two directions: As an individual, I ask myself: How do I deal with grief and personal tragedy? If I were the son of Shlomit, would I be able to understand things philosophically and say that the tradition was not yet able to find a place in the tribal system for those born of non-Israelite fathers? Would I be a rational and patient voice for change, or would I strike out in anger?

As a Jewish community leader, I have to ask myself whether the community I lead works hard to welcome strangers, those who are looking for a home. Judaism in America is doomed if synagogues don’t overcome their often stodgy and stiff attitude to newcomers and spiritual seekers.

These two dimensions of this little narrative are certainly alive today, as we seek to cope wisely with the tragedies that life deals us, and as we seek to create welcoming and healing communities where the wisdom of our tradition is brought to bear in our lives.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah Congregation and professor of liturgy, mysticism and professional skills at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.