“The Blasphemer – A Midrashic View”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Emor, deals, for the most part, with the laws of the Cohanim–the Priests. These priestly instructions are followed (in Leviticus Chapter 23) with laws regarding the observance of the various Jewish festivals. The final chapter of the parasha, Leviticus 24, concludes with three seemingly unrelated themes: the kindling of the Menorah (candelabra), the placing of the Show Bread on the Tabernacle table and the story of the blasphemer.

The story of the blasphemer opens in Leviticus 24:10. The Torah tells us, “Va’yay’tzay ben eesh’ah Yis’r’ay’lit, v’hoo ben eesh Mitz’ree, b’toch b’nay Yisrael,” The son of an Israelite woman who was [also] the son of an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel. This son of the Israelite woman fought in the camp with an Israelite man. During the fight, the son of the Israelite woman pronounced the name of G-d and blasphemed.

The blasphemer was then brought to Moses for judgment. The Torah identifies the blasphemer’s mother’s name as Shlomit the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. Since Moses did not know how to deal with the blasphemer’s transgression, the man was put under temporary arrest to await legal ruling. After consulting with G-d, Moses instructs the people to take the blasphemer outside the camp. Witnesses who had heard him blaspheme were told to place their hands on the blasphemer’s head, and the entire people were instructed to stone him to death.

Trying to make sense of the strange juxtaposition between the tale of the blasphemer and the laws of the Show Bread, the Talmud explains that the blasphemer had gone about the camp of Israel scoffing at the Show Bread, saying: “A king normally eats warm, fresh-baked bread. Why should G-d have old, cold bread in the Tabernacle?” After being rebuked by an Israelite for speaking disrespectfully, the two came to blows and the son of the Israelite woman uttered the curse in the name of G-d.

The Midrash, cited by Eliyahu KiTov in his weekly parasha studies, develops the elaborate story of the blasphemer, placing its actual origin in Egypt. The story begins 60 years before the Exodus from Egypt, and concludes either two years, or 39 years, after the Exodus.

After Moses was weaned by his biological mother and returned to his stepmother, Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithya, he spent his youth and adolescence as a prince in the house of Pharaoh. Bithya had raised Moses with a strong Jewish consciousness. Although Moses knew of his Hebrew brothers’ suffering, travail and slavery, he had never gone out to actually see them. In order to help the Israelite slaves, Moses arranged to be placed in charge of Pharaoh’s workers, and made it possible for the people of Israel not to work on Shabbat. He explained to his Egyptian compatriots that without proper rest, the overworked slaves would die of fatigue and Egypt would be left with no workers.

When Moses first started going out to look after his brothers, he wore a disguise so that he wouldn’t be recognized. One day, Moses overheard the Egyptian taskmasters complaining about how powerless they were. They were especially upset by Pharaoh’s decree that there may be no sexual mixing with the Israelite women, so that the pure Egyptian pedigree not be contaminated. One taskmaster however reported that there was one Hebrew woman who was unusually friendly. Whenever she brought food to the fields for her husband, she talked and gossiped with everyone, “How are you, dear Taskmaster?” “How are you, officer?” “Hello, husband.” In fact, she was called “Shlomit,” because she always asked for the “Shalom“–the well-being of everyone.

The very next day the Egyptian taskmaster came to Shlomit’s house. Ordering her husband to his labors, the Egyptian persuaded Shlomit to have relations with him. When the husband realized what was happening, he returned to confront the Egyptian. In response, the Egyptian taskmaster attempted to kill the man.

Moses, however, had gone out without his disguise, to keep an eye on the scheming Egyptian. When Moses saw the Egyptian taskmaster beating the husband, he looked “this way and that,” and killed the Egyptian using the Tetragrammaton–the ineffable name of G-d.

The husband of Shlomit whose life Moses had saved, was named Datan. Moses was not concerned that Datan would reveal what he had done to the Egyptian, after all, Moses had just saved the man’s life. Datan, on the other hand, looked upon Moses as a traitor to his brothers for he, Moses, had many opportunities to intervene on the peoples’ behalf previously, but had never done anything for them. Datan, in fact, was greatly concerned that the Jews would be blamed for Moses’ violence. So he went home and told his brother, Aviram, what had happened.

Aviram concurred with Datan’s concerns. The brothers then schemed to quarrel publicly the next day expecting that Moses would intervene. When Moses berated Datan, calling him a wicked man for beating his brother, Datan immediately ran to Pharaoh to reveal that Moses had killed an Egyptian, forcing Moses to flee to Midian.

This terrible incident of Mesira (talebearing to the government) indicated that the Jews were not yet ready for redemption. During the next 60 years, Datan and Aviram were oppressed along with all Jews, but their fierce resentment towards Moses did not diminish. When Moses returned after 60 years to redeem his people, they confronted him and warned him that his overtures to Pharaoh had only made things worse for the Jewish people, and that G-d would look down upon him, judge him and punish him.

After her intimacy with the Egyptian, Datan’s wife, Shlomit, had become pregnant. Datan himself was not sure whether Shlomit was a victim of coercion or had willingly given herself to the Egyptian. Despite this uncertainty, Datan continued to support his wife and helped raise the child as his own. In fact, no one knew the secret of the child’s birth, except for Datan and his brother Aviram. Although Datan eventually took another wife and told his subsequent children the secret of the child, they were very discreet about the secret.

The child of Shlomit grew up thinking that he was a Jew since he was enslaved with the rest of the Israelites. The young man witnessed all the great miracles that occurred in the process of the Exodus from Egypt. He even merited to have a portion of Manna come down specifically for him in the wilderness, and he settled among his “father’s” tribe, the tribe of Reuben.

It was only when they joined in the rebellion of Korach, that the true wickedness of Datan and Aviram became apparent. When the earth opened to swallow Korach and his followers, Datan and Aviram, their wives and their children were consumed as well. Shlomit’s son, however, the child of the Egyptian taskmaster, remained alive. Only then was it evident to all that the boy was not the true biological offspring of Datan. Having no remaining family, the boy tried to settle among the other members of the tribe of Reuben. The Reubenites however rejected him, saying that he was not one of them. When he tried to join his mother’s tribe, the tribe of Dan, he was also rejected. He then went to court to insist that he be accepted among one of the twelve tribes, but the judges decreed that he had to live outside the camp, with the “mixed multitude”–the Egyptians who had joined the Israelite people at the time of the Exodus. Distraught by the decision, the man began to quarrel.

The rabbis say that the language found in the verse, Leviticus 24:10: “Va’yay’tzay“–literally- and he [the blasphemer] went out, indicates that the son of the Egyptian man had for all intents and purposes, “lost it.” He “went out” of the court, he “went out” of the world, he “went out” of the Torah–he, in essence, rejected the Jewish people and their faith! After all, he said, “A king normally eats fresh bread everyday. Are you going to give stale bread–nine days old to your G-d? I don’t believe in Moses or his commandments!”

Say the rabbis, had he not been an “eesh Mitzri“–an Egyptian, in his heart, he would have accepted upon himself the judgment imposed on him, because in judgment there’s always a loser. Had he been sincere in his commitment to the Jewish people, the blasphemer would have been able to turn his loss into a win. Had he paid attention to the previous parasha concerning the Menorah, he would have realized that every Jew needs to ask G-d to enlighten him, and that no person is ever outside the purview of G-d and His world. Had he only paid scant attention to the previous portion concerning the Sukkah, the blasphemer would have known to cover himself in the shadow of G-d. But he rejected it all, and he cursed, using the name of G-d, the ineffable name of G-d.

Of great interest, is the rabbis’ discussion of the halakhic status of the blasphemer. They learn from the words “B’toch b’nay Yisrael,” (Lev. 24:10) that the blasphemer had actually converted to Judaism. Why they ask, should he have to convert to Judaism, after all his mother was Jewish? They respond saying that since his birth occurred before the giving of the Torah, the blasphemer was actually considered to be a Noahide, and Noahides follow patrilineal descent.

Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) maintains that, starting with Abraham, all his biological descendants are considered Jewish. The Egyptian son, maintains Nachmanides, was converted only because it was felt that he was somehow blemished by his Egyptian lineage.

Why was the blasphemer put to death? Suggest the rabbis, because he attempted to use the ineffable name of G-d that he had heard at Sinai, to wipe away his blemishes. He never really understood the basic principles of Judaism. He felt no need to be cleansed internally. He was put to death, because he could not accept either the lifestyle or the philosophy of the people of Israel.

Jewish tradition maintains that from the bitter can come sweet, and that only through rigorous labor can there be true accomplishment. In Judaism there are no shortcuts to Teshuva (repentance). Sweat and hard work lead to forgiveness, perfection and correction.

The blasphemer could not be accepted among the people of Israel unless he understood and accepted that, and he refused. Despite the disadvantaged background of the blasphemer, he was given many opportunities to learn. But he chose not to.

This is the message of the Midrash, and this is the message of the blasphemer.

May you be blessed.