Parashat Emor / Who Will Comfort the Blemished?

The sages, fitting the episode into the reality of Jewish religious law in which they live, turn the blasphemer into a bastard, who, according to the sages’ religious legal code, may not enter the community of God.

Yakov Z. Meyer
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'The Blasphemer,' by William Blake (c. 1800).
Yakov Z. Meyer

“And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian [goes] out among the children of Israel” (Leviticus 24:10) and commits blasphemy. The nature of the son’s sin is not explicitly stated and the law governing such an act is unclear when he commits it. He is therefore placed in custody, and Moses turns to God for further instruction.

God informs Moses that the penalty for this blasphemy is death by stoning, and then proceeds to transmit to Moses various laws pertaining to all people, “as well the stranger, as the home-born” (Lev. 24:16) – i.e., both outsiders and full-fledged members of Israel. These strictures relate to blasphemers, killers of cattle and those who maim or kill another person. All of these people are subject to the same penalty stipulated by law, regardless of their origin or the extent of their genetic affiliation with Israel.

Apparently, the reason why the blasphemer is placed in custody and not punished immediately derives from the uncertainty as to whether Hebrew law also applies to those who are not an integral part of the nation. The answer is that yes, it indeed applies to everyone – “as well the stranger, as the home-born.”

The sages follow their customary habit of going beyond a formal, general approach, and seek to provide the blasphemer with a specific identity. He is identified, according to the midrash as someone “whose father was an Egyptian” and that identification dovetails with the passage in Exodus concerning Moses’ killing an Egyptian: “And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown up, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian smiting a Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand” (Exodus 2:11-12).

If the blasphemer’s father was the very same Egyptian whom Moses killed, how is it that he was born to an Israelite woman? The homilist connects the passage in this week’s portion, Parashat Emor (Leviticus 22:26-23:44), which identifies the sinner’s mother as an Israelite, to the passage in Exodus concerning the Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and in the space between the two passages inserts an entire drama.

“Rabbi Levi said: Clearly he [the blasphemer] was a bastard [in terms of Jewish religious law]. How do we come to that conclusion? In Egypt, the taskmasters were Egyptians and the police officers were Israelites. Each taskmaster was in charge of 10 officers and each officer was in charge of 10 people [that is, slaves]. Thus, each taskmaster was in charge of 110 people. One day, a taskmaster appeared early in the morning near the home of an officer.

“The taskmaster told the officer: Assemble your 10 people. When the taskmaster entered the officer’s home, the officer’s wife smiled at him. The taskmaster said to himself: This woman is mine. Emerging from the officer’s home, the taskmaster hid himself behind a ladder. When the officer left, the taskmaster entered and made love to the officer’s wife. The husband turned around and saw the taskmaster emerging from his home. After he realized that the husband had seen him, the taskmaster began to beat him every day and would say to him, ‘Work harder, work harder,’ because he wanted to kill him.

“At that very moment, the holy spirit entered Moses, as it is written, ‘And he looked this way and that way.’ What does this mean? Moses saw what the taskmaster had done in the officer’s home and what he would in future do to him in the field. Moses said to himself: First the taskmaster slept with the officer’s wife; now he wants to kill him. The Torah then immediately states, ‘and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian’” (Vayikra Rabbah 32:4).

Rabbi Levi constructs the story leading to the scene in which an Egyptian beating an Israelite is spotted by Moses. According to the midrash, the Egyptian, the Israelite’s taskmaster, uses a ruse to get the officer out of his home; when the officer leaves his home, the Egyptian enters and sleeps with the officer’s wife. When the cuckolded husband discovers what the taskmaster has done, the taskmaster begins to abuse him and even seeks to kill him. Then Moses appears to defend the Israelite. From this adulterous relationship, a son is born, Rabbi Levi tells us. That son, the child of the Israelite woman and the Egyptian man, is the blasphemer referred to in this week’s Torah reading.

The episode of the blasphemer deals in an incisive, effective manner with the fate of those who live on the margins of society, from the legal standpoint. They may not enter the community of God.

Seeking to delve into this issue, the sages, fitting the episode into the reality of Jewish religious law in which they live, turn the blasphemer into a bastard, who, according to the sages’ religious legal code, may not enter the community of God. Together with the fleshing out of the blasphemer’s biographical background, this displacement opens up a discussion of the fate of those individuals who have become socially and legally marginalized through no fault of their own, and expands that discussion beyond the boundaries of halakha, religious law.

“It is written, ‘But I returned and considered all the oppressions [that are done under the sun; and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power, but they had no comforter]’ [Ecclesiastes 4:1]. Hanina the tailor reads the word ‘oppressions’ as a reference to bastards: The words ‘But I returned and considered all the oppressions’ refer to bastards. ‘Behold the tears of such as were oppressed’ refers to the fact that the mothers of these bastards committed a sin, and so their offspring are the oppressed who are distanced from society.

“The father of the bastard commits adultery with a married woman and is indifferent to the fact that he is committing a sin. The words ‘and they had no comforter’ refer to the fate of the bastards. The text then states, ‘and on the side of their oppressors there was power’; this is a reference to Israel’s Great Sanhedrin, which, basing itself on the Torah’s authority, distances the bastards from society, as it is written: ‘A bastard shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord’ [Deuteronomy 23:3].

“It is written: ‘and they had no comforter’ – and thus God declares: I must be their comforter. In this world, they are blemished; however, in the future, as the prophet Zechariah says, I will regard all Israel as pure gold, as it is written: ‘And he said unto me: “What seest thou?” And I said: “I have seen, and behold a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it”’ [Zechariah 4:2]” (Vayikra Rabbah 32:8).

Hanina identifies the persons in the passage in Ecclesiastes who are oppressed through no fault of their own and have no hope in this world. These persons, says Hanina, are the bastards who are oppressed because of halakha, which distances them from society because of what their parents did. The Sanhedrin, using the Torah’s authority, distances them. In the future, however, God will make these unfortunates integral members of Israel, which will one day shine as a candelabrum made of pure gold.