The Story Behind the Story

April 26, 2010

23 min read


Emor (Leviticus 21-24 )

Parshat Emor primarily teaches law:(1) Laws concerning the Kohanim, and laws regarding the various festivals, make up the majority of the Parsha. There is a short narrative section at the end of the Parsha, which itself introduces more law, then returns to narrative:

And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel; and this son of the Israelite woman and a man of Israel strove together in the camp. And the Israelite woman's son blasphemed the name of God, and cursed. And they brought him to Moshe; and his mother's name was Shlomit, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, that they might make a decision according to God's Will.

And God spoke to Moshe, saying: 'Banish the person who has cursed from the camp; and let all who heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation pelt him with stones. And you shall speak to the People of Israel, saying, "Whoever curses his God shall bear [the consequences of] his sin. And he who blasphemes the name of God shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him; as well the stranger, as he who is born in the land, when he blasphemes the name of the Lord, shall be put to death.... You shall have one kind of law for the stranger, as for one of your own country; for I am the Almighty your God.' And Moshe spoke to the People of Israel, that they should bring forth him who had cursed out of the camp, and pelt him with stones. And the People of Israel did as God commanded Moshe. (Vayikra 24:10-23)

While the law of the "blasphemer" is certainly important, both the context and the style in which this law is transmitted raise questions: are somewhat irregular. The law is told in the form of a narrative, rather than in the dispassionate legalistic form of the surrounding text in this Parsha and elsewhere in the Torah. Even if we assume that the narrative style is crucial to the transmission of this law, the narrative itself is somewhat irregular: Why is this story told here? There seems to be nothing within the episode to indicate that it transpired at the particular time and place in which it is inserted into the text. Furthermore, why is the identity of the blasphemer revealed? When compared to other incidents of individual sinners in the desert, such as the wood-gatherer, this seems a departure from the norm.(2) Finally, what was so unique about this case that Moshe found it necessary to consult with God in order to clarify the law? A closer examination of the events and the individuals involved in this incident may help us understand why the story is told at this juncture.

The blasphemer is described as the son of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman. By making this identification the Torah seems to be pointing out that his problematic lineage plays no small role in his sin: The curse he utters springs from his Egyptian.(3) The reader is subtly referred back to Pharaoh's impudent question, "Who is God, that I should obey his voice to let Israel go? I do not know God, nor will I let Israel go." (Shmot 5:3). And yet, the Torah goes beyond a general statement of his lineage, and supplies us with the name of his mother; there must be something even more specific that we are meant to learn from this uncharacteristic detail. In fact, the rabbis go even farther, and identify the Egyptian father of the blasphemer.

'Whose father was an Egyptian' (Vayikra 24: 10). Our rabbis and R. Levi differ on the interpretation. Our rabbis say: Although there were no bastards among them at that time, he was a bastard. R. Levi says: He was definitely a bastard. How is this to be understood? [During their enslavement] the taskmasters were Egyptians and the officers were Israelites. One taskmaster was in charge of ten officers and one officer was in charge of ten men. Thus a taskmaster had charge of a hundred men. On one occasion a taskmaster paid an early visit to an officer and said to him: 'Go and assemble me your group.' When he came in the other's wife smiled at him. He thought: 'She is mine!' So he went out and hid behind a ladder. No sooner had her husband gone out than he entered and misconducted himself with her. The other turned round and saw him coming out of the house. When the taskmaster realized that he had seen him, he went to him and kept beating him all that day, saying to him: 'Work hard, work hard!' The reason was that he wanted to kill him. Thereupon the Divine Inspiration began to stir in Moshe; hence it is written, 'And he looked this way and that' (Shmot 2:12). What is the significance of the expression 'this way and that'?-[Moshe] saw what the taskmaster had done to the officer in the house and in the field. He thought: Not enough that he has misconducted himself with his wife but he must seek to kill him! Instantly, 'When he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian' (ib.). (Midrash Rabbah - Vayikra 32:4)

The father of this man(4) was none other than the abusive taskmaster whom Moshe saw beating the Jewish slave.(5) According to the Midrash, the Egyptian first abused the wife and then attempted to kill the husband. In the course of the abuse of the wife a child was conceived. This child joined the Jewish People and left Egypt with his mother. Now, he has an altercation with another man, and curses God.

We cannot avoid the impression that all three members of this tragic triangle are less-than sterling characters; the Egyptian is clearly the most evil character in the scene, taking advantage of his position of power over those under his thumb. The husband is described as an officer of his fellow slaves; this is not a position to which men were appointed because of their high moral standards or their popularity among the Israelites. This was an abusive position, held by men who were able and apparently willing to force their fellow Jews to obey the Egyptian taskmasters. It is unlikely that he was beloved by his people, nor would any of the Israelites have been likely to go out on a limb in his defense. Nonetheless, even this officer is seen by Moshe as a brother. Moshe's commitment to justice, as well as his commitment to protecting every Jew, was uncompromising, unparalleled. Moshe takes action; he steps in to save this Jewish officer from being beaten to death, killing the Egyptian taskmaster. Later, when Moshe again intercedes to try to stop an altercation between two Jews, his previous action is thrown back in his face:

And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews struggled together; and he said to the one who did the wrong, 'Why do you strike your fellow?' And he said, 'Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?' And Moshe feared, and said, 'Certainly this thing is known.' (Shmot 2:13-14)

According to the Midrash, the two who were fighting on the second day were Datan and Aviram, two provocateurs known primarily for their activities in the desert.

And he went out the second day, and behold, two men of the Hebrews were striving together (ib. 13). This refers to Datan and Aviram, whom he calls 'striving' on account of their subsequent record; for it was they who said this thing; it was they who left over of the Manna; they it was who said: 'Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt' (Bamidbar 14:4). It was they who rebelled at the Red Sea. (Shmot Rabba 1:29)

At almost every turn in the desert, whenever trouble brewed, Datan was on the scene, and this midrash informs us that this was nothing new: The two men whom Moshe saw fighting in Egypt were none other than Datan and Aviram. When we add this information to another midrash concerning Datan's background, the scene becomes even more charged: According to the midrash, the reason Datan knew of Moshe having killed the Egyptian in order to save a Jew, was because Datan was that Jew. The Midrash explains that Datan was the husband of Shlomit, the daughter of Dibri.

When Moshe saw this, he knew by means of Divine Inspiration what had happened in the house and what the Egyptian was about to do in the field; so he said: 'This man certainly deserves his death, as it is written (Vayikra 24): 'And anyone who strikes another person [with mortal blows] shall be put to death'. Moreover, since he cohabited with the wife of Datan he deserves slaying, as it is said (Vayikra 20:10): "Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death'. Hence does it say: "And he looked this way and that way'(Shmot 2:12); namely, he saw what [the Egyptian] did to [Datan] in the house and what he intended to do to him in the field. (Shmot Rabba 1:28)

One day Datan struggles with the Egyptian taskmaster who wished to kill him; the next day he struggles with another Jew. On both occasions, Moshe intercedes and saves him. Datan, though, is ungrateful, even resentful. This resentment is especially ironic if we consider the debt Datan owed Moshe - his very life.

The two men enmeshed in this triangle are, therefore, unsavory characters: the disgraced husband, Datan, was a "kapo" of sorts, who resented Moshe and challenged his leadership every step of the way. The Egyptian was a cruel taskmaster, a rapist, and a would-be murderer. The third member of the triangle was Shlomit, the daughter of Dibri - Datan's wife, the mother of the blasphemer. What was her role in these sordid episodes? The midrashic material is not of one mind, with various midrashim attributing different degrees of responsibility. The first midrash we examined made a point of her flirtatious behavior: "When he came in the other's wife smiled at him. Thought he: "She is mine!" While the midrashim do not go so far as to call Shlomit a willing participant, there is most definitely a school of thought that points an accusing finger towards her less-than-modest comportment: some commentators read something ominous in her name: Shlomit, the daughter of Dibri, implies that she was too talkative, too locquacious, somehow more effusive and outgoing than propriety would dictate.(6) On the other hand, other sources seem to indicate that what transpired was not only without her consent, it was completely without her knowledge!

Once an Egyptian taskmaster went to a Jewish officer and set eyes upon his wife who was beautiful without blemish. He waited for daybreak, when he dragged the officer out of his house and then returned to lie down with the woman, who thought that it was her husband, with the result that she became pregnant from him. When her husband returned, he discovered the Egyptian emerging from his house. He then asked her: 'Did he touch you?' She replied: 'Yes, for I thought it was you.' (Shmot Rabba 1:28)

But even this source is introduced by a more damning statement: Tradition tells us that the Jews remained chaste during the duration of their enslavement. There was one exception:

Whence do we know that they were not suspect of adultery? Because there was only one immoral woman and the Bible published her name, as it is said: 'And his mother's name was Shlomit, the daughter of Dibri.(7) (Shmot Rabba 1:28)

Although the Midrash tells us that the Egyptian violated her without her knowledge, and ostensibly against her will, the prefacing remarks concerning her immorality belie a less-than flattering attitude toward her. Perhaps both midrashim should be seen as complimenting one another: Shlomit behaved immorally by sending out inappropriate signals to the Egyptian taskmaster, but she was not a willing participant in the results of her own flirtation. We may perhaps discern this same split in the reasoning Moshe employed before deciding to kill the Egyptian: the basis for his "verdict" is a verse concerning adultery, not rape: "Both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death." (Vayikra 20:10)

From a sociological perspective, and in light of what we know from world history, the question of sexuality in a slave society is often extremely complicated: The slaveholder believes that the slaves are property, owned - body and soul - and used at will to satisfy the needs of the privileged class. The slave, on the other hand, often uses sexuality to improve living conditions or to guarantee survival. Slavery thus undermines the most basic relationships, overturning the most basic human rights. Loss of personal dominion over one's body casts a shadow over the ability of men and women of the slave class to form stable relationships, free of mistrust and beyond the suspicion of promiscuity. By the time the Jews are redeemed from slavery, a certain doubt has crept in to the collective consciousness. Not all the Jews were completely confident that their spouses had remained chaste. It is in this context that the Zohar explains the enigmatic episode at Marah:

Rabbi Eleazar adduced here the verse: "And when they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter.... There he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them" (Shmot 15: 23-25). 'I wonder', he said, 'how it is that people take so little trouble to understand the words of the Torah. Here, for example, one should really inquire what is the point of the words "There he made for them... and there he proved them". The inner significance of the water mentioned here is this: The Egyptians claimed to be the parents of the children of the Israelites, and many among the Israelites suspected their wives in the matter. So the Holy One, blessed be He, brought them to that place, where He desired to put them to the test. Thus when Moshe cried to God, he was told: 'Write down the Divine Name, cast it into the water, and let all of them, women and men, be tested, so that no evil report should remain in regard to My children; and until they all be probed I will not cause My Name to rest upon them. Straightway "God showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters", the tree being thus identical with the Divine Name the priest has to write for the testing of the wife of an Israelite (who suspects her of infidelity). Thus "There he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them". Now it may be asked: This was properly done for the women, but why include the men? But, indeed, the men also had to be probed to show that they had not contaminated themselves with Egyptian women, in the same way as the women had to be probed to show that they had kept themselves uncontaminated by Egyptian men, all the time they were among them. And all, male and female, were proved to be pure, were found to be the seed of Israel, holy and pure. Then the Holy One, blessed be He, caused His Name to dwell among them. (Zohar, Bamidbar 124b)

As in the sotah ritual, the prerequisite for the Divine Presence to dwell amongst the people was the drinking of bitter water which contained the Divine Name. At Marah, the Jews were given an opportunity to lift the cloud of suspicion that had cast its shadow between husbands and wives. Each and every one was proven to have remained chaste, and husbands and wives were reunited. There was one woman, though, who could not have passed such a test; Shlomit and Datan both knew that her son was the child of the Egyptian taskmaster. Apparently, Shlomit was not tested at Marah. She was no longer married, and therefore was not given the bitter waters to drink.

The various characters in our short but strange narrative are beginning to come into focus: Datan and Shlomit, a worthy match; her son by her Egyptian paramour, and an unidentified individual with whom this son becomes embroiled in strife and fisticuffs.

And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel; and this son of the Israelite woman and the Israelite man strove together in the camp. (Vayikra 24:10)

What was the root of the controversy?

R. Hiyya taught: He went out as a result of the section regarding pedigrees. For he came with the intention of pitching his tent in the camp of Dan, so they said to him: 'What right have you to pitch your tent in the camp of Dan?' Said he to them: 'I am descended from the daughters of Dan.' 'It is written,' they told him, ' "By their fathers' houses; every man with his own standard, according to the ensigns" (Bamidbar 2, 2);-- fathers' but not mothers' houses.' He appealed to the court of Moshe and lost his case, so he rose and reviled God. (Vayikra Rabba 32:3)

This indeed explains the source of his discontent but not the reason for his altercation with the Israelite. The Zohar explains the reason for the fight and the identity of his antagonist:

'And his mother's name, etc.' Up to this point his mother's name was concealed, but now that he had uttered blasphemy his mother's name is mentioned. Said R. Abba: 'Were it not that the Sacred Lamp is still alive, I would not reveal this, since it is not meant to be revealed save to those who are among the reapers of the field: a curse on those who want to reveal to those who should not know! The Israelite man mentioned here was the son of another woman, and his father was the husband of Shlomit. When an Egyptian came to her in the middle of the night and he returned home and became aware of it, he separated from her and took another wife. Hence one is called "the Israelite man" and the other "the son of the Israelite woman". Now if they quarreled, how came the Holy Name to be involved? The reason was that the Israelite man reviled the other's mother, and the latter took the He from the Holy Name and cursed with it to defend his mother; hence the word nakav (lit. hollowed) is used, to show that he separated the letters of the Holy Name. But all this is only for "the reapers of the field".' (Zohar Vayikra, 106a)

While certain elements of this Zohar are clearly too obscure to explain, there are some points that we can decipher. These men who fought had something in common - their parents were once married. Moreover, their fathers once fought; both seemed to have inherited contentious constitutions from their respective fathers.

When the son of Shlomit is denied the right to dwell with the tribe of Dan, the son of Datan provokes him. Perhaps possessing the tact and congeniality of his father he calls the formers' mother a whore. He tells him how his mother cheated on her husband, with a hated Egyptian. He is further told of how Moshe himself intervened and killed his father.(8) Now perhaps this man suspects that he knows why he lost his case, assuming that Moshe would never rule in his favor because of his background. So he curses. He uses the great and awesome name of God to vent his anger, sadness and frustration.

But why curse with the name of God? Why utter the ineffable, the unspeakable? The Midrash provides the explanation:

R. Nehemiah says: He saw that there was none who would mention over him God's name and slay him. The Sages said: He saw that there was no hope that righteous persons would arise from him or his offspring until the end of generations. When Moshe saw this, he took counsel with the angels and said to them: 'This man deserves death.' They agreed; hence it says: "And when he saw that there was no man" to say a good word for him, "and he smote the Egyptian." With what did he slay him? ... The Rabbis say that he pronounced God's name against him and thus slew him, for it is said: "Do you say to kill me?" (Shmot 2:14). (Midrash Rabba Shmot 1:29)

The method of execution of the Egyptian was by uttering the Divine Name. Now, when the son of the Egyptian utters the Divine Name he is placed in detention, awaiting a Divine directive. It is possible that Moshe's silence is not due to lack of knowledge, rather to what he may feel is an inappropriate legal decision on his part. A similar phenomenon is discerned in the case of Zimri and Cozbi. Moshe had married a woman from Midyan; why couldn't Zimri do the same? Of course Moshe knew the response; he sensed, though, that it would be unseemly if it was meted out directly by himself without Divine instruction.(9

But where did the man learn the ineffable name? The sages say he heard it at Sinai. When God said "I am the Almighty, your God..." the ineffable name was articulated. This man, born of a forbidden union and raised as one of the Jews, a man who witnessed the plagues and the splitting of the sea, who stood at Mount Sinai and saw the heavens open, who saw and heard the Voice of God together with all of Israel, was only able to distill from these experiences the ability to curse. The failure was his own; while it is true that he was most likely livid with rage, emotionally ravaged, utterly humiliated, nonetheless his response indicates a complete breakdown, a total moral failure.

The use he makes of the Divine Name is so different from that of Moshe. When he sees a man abusing his slave, Moshe feels obligated to stop the unjustified beating. Moshe uses the name of God to achieve peace, in much the same way the Divine Name is used at Marah, and in the sotah ritual: There, too, the Name is utilized in order to create peace. The son of the Egyptian did not seem to understand this, or did not wish to understand this. His action is as different as Moshe's as Zimri's affair with a Midianite woman differed from Moshe's marriage to Zipporah.

At Sinai, the greatest event in the history of the world, all witnesses should have been transformed, elevated. This man concluded the wrong lesson from Sinai: Instead of truth, understanding and holiness, he walked away with venom.

Perhaps now we also understand why this narrative is taught at this juncture. The next verse is the start of a new Parsha, "Behar", which tells us what Moshe learned at Sinai:

And Moshe spoke to the People of Israel, that they should remove the person who had cursed from the camp, and pelt him with stone[s]. And the People of Israel did as God commanded Moshe. (Vayikra 24: 23) And God spoke to Moshe at Mount Sinai, saying... (Vayikra 25:1)

This section stands in stark contrast to the lesson learned by the son of the Egyptian at Sinai. Instead of beauty, he saw emptiness; for him, Sinai was just another hill, the Tablets of Stone only rocks. Rather than allowing what he had seen, heard and experienced to uplift him, instead of using God's Name for blessings and holiness, he degraded himself by blaspheming and defiling the Holy Name. He took all the great spiritual gifts he had been offered and turned them into something hurtful and vile. In a sense, he "missed the mountain;" perhaps that is why he was stoned.



1. The only other section of narrative is the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, however their deaths seems to be introduced in order to teach the laws of holiness which follow the laws of the Mishkan.

2. In contrast, the wood-gatherer remains anonymous, though at least one authority identifies him with Zelafhad. See Talmud Bavli Shabbat 96b.

3. See Da'at Zekeinim m'Baalei haTosfot on Vayikra 24:10.

4. According to the Ariz"al (Sha'ar Hapsukim, Emor) the taskmaster was a reincarnation of Kayin. See Explorations, Parshat Bereishit, for a discussion of this idea.

5. See Explorations, Parshat Bereishit. Moshe was a reincarnation of Hevel: Rather than seeking to kill his brother, Moshe attempts to help his brother, and kills in defense of his brother, in stark contrast to the heinous crime of Kayin. According to the Midrash, Moshe merited prophesy due to this gesture. "God then said to him: 'You have put aside your work and have gone to share the sorrow of Israel, behaving to them like a brother; well, I will also leave those on high and below and only speak with you.' Hence it is written: 'And when God saw that he turned aside to see' (Shmot 3, 4); because God saw that Moshe turned aside from his duties to look upon their burdens, He called unto him out of the midst of the bush.' (ib.)"(Shmot Rabba 1:27).

6. See Rashi ad loc.: Shlomit is derived from Shalom - she would say hello to all- and Dibri - she was too talkative and outgoing.

7. In his comments on the verses in our present parsha, Rashi labels Shlomit a "harlot." On the other hand, commenting on the verses in Shmot in which Moshe's execution of the Egyptian oppressor is recounted, Rashi states that Shlomit was unaware that the man with whom she was intimate was not her husband. Moreover, whereas her name is not mentioned in Shmot, in Vayikra her name is recorded, which Rashi clearly sees as an indication of her personality; see above, note 6. My conclusion from these conflicting portraits is that Rashi felt her provocative behavior had provoked the assault. While this resolution may not be 'politically correct', it may be the only way to resolve the contradictions between Rashi's two comments.

8. Zohar Vayikra 106a "R. Yitzhak said: Besides insulting his mother, he mentioned that his father was the man whom Moshe had slain."

9. See comments of Rabbenu Bahya ad loc.

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