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Breaking the Ice

  • Harav Mosheh Lichtenstein

Adapted by Binyamin Fraenkel

Translated by Kaeren Fish

The narratives in the Torah often lack whole chunks of information, with the gaps filled in by midrash or the commentaries. A famous example of this phenomenon is the story of the akeida, which says nothing of Avraham’s feelings over the course of what was clearly a highly traumatic event. An exception to the rule is found at the end of our parasha – the episode of the blasphemer. The text recounts:

And the son of an Israelite woman (he being the son of an Egyptian man) emerged among Bnei Yisrael, 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 the Lord and cursed. And they brought him to Moshe (and his mother’s name was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan). And they put him in custody, that they might be informed by God’s word.

And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, “Bring forth him that has cursed outside the camp, and let all that heard him lay their hands upon his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And you shall speak to Bnei Yisrael, saying: Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And he who blasphemes the Name of the Lord shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him; both the stranger and he that is born in the land, when he blasphemes the Name of the Lord, shall be put to death…” And Moshe spoke to Bnei Yisrael, and they brought him that had cursed out of the camp, and stoned him with stones. And Bnei Yisrael did as the Lord commanded Moshe. (Vayikra 24:10-23)

The midrash (Vayikra Rabba, Emor 32:3) offers two interpretations of this dramatic tragedy, explaining it against the background of either the preceding unit or the description with which our unit opens.

Theological Difficulty

The first explanation offered by the midrash is based on the fact that this unit concludes the presentation of the sacrifices and ritual purity in Sefer Vayikra. The preceding unit was about the commandment of the showbread, and the midrash places in the mouth of the blasphemer a complaint which, while directed specifically against the showbread, represents an undermining of the system of sacrifices, and perhaps Divine service in general:

R. Berakhia said: The blasphemer “emerges” from the preceding [textual] unit. He said: It is written, “You shall take fine flour and bake of it twelve cakes…” (Vayikra 24:5). But the manner of a king is to eat fresh bread, not bread that is stale! For according to what we learn concerning the showbread, it is never eaten within less than nine days, nor more than eleven. How is this so? It is baked on the eve of Shabbat and eaten on Shabbat the next week. If a festival falls on the eve of Shabbat, it is eaten only on the tenth day. And in the case of a two-day holiday for Rosh Ha-Shana, it is eaten only on the eleventh day, as we find in the Tanchuma.

The attack on the showbread here is a symptom of an attitude towards the sacrifices as a whole. The encounter with intensive sanctity, as in the Temple, can lead to a feeling that God is “hanging around our necks,” as it were, and thus to wholesale rejection of the religious worldview and norms. A person who encounters the sanctity of the world of sacrifices may feel himself devoid of even the most elementary identification, and therefore feel fundamentally cut off from this entire religious world.

The Torah offers two other possible reactions to sanctity. In the case of Nadav and Avihu, we find a powerful, exaggerated religious ecstasy that is inappropriate, an attempt to reach too high. A different possible reaction is the complete apathy of the atheist, as embodied by the gatherer of wood in the wilderness.

The blasphemer is not apathetic; what he feels is anger. He feels that God is placing heavy constraints on his personality and that the world of sanctity does not allow him an independent existence. He is not apathetic towards the Torah’s demands, but rather speaks out against them with shocking disdain.

Social Misfit

The midrash brings a different possible explanation for the blasphemer’s fierce reaction, based on the content of the unit itself:

R. Chiya taught: The blasphemer “emerges” from the description of his tribal lineage. For he came to pitch his tent amongst the tribe of Dan, but they said to him, “What business do you have pitching your tent in the camp of Dan?” He answered them, “I am the son of a woman from the tribe of Dan.” They told him, “It is written (Bamidbar 2), ‘Each man in accordance with his own flag, with the emblems of their fathers’ houses’ – it does not say ‘their mother’s houses.’” He went to appeal to Moshe’s beit din, but the ruling went against him, so he arose and blasphemed.

Let us consider the identity of the blasphemer: “The son of an Israelite woman, he himself being the son of an Egyptian man… and his mother’s name was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.” Who is this blasphemer? He is someone who is devoid of a social identity. His mother is from the tribe of Dan – a tribe possessing no particular prestige – and his father is an Egyptian. We do not even know his name. In contrast, there is “the Israelite man,” an independent public identity, not just “the son of an Israelite woman.”

The Israelite man follows a “head-on collision” approach (“Let the law bore through the mountain”); he is unwilling to give any attention to the blasphemer and his complaint. The halakhic ruling concerning the blasphemer was correct, but perhaps it might have been possible to halt this chain of events earlier on, if only the time had been taken to greet the man.

The ability to greet and speak peaceably to even a blasphemer, to accept him and contain him, might have allowed him to reconnect with a sense that there was a place for him on the social level within the nation. R. Amital zt”l used to mention the gemara in Berakhot 6b, which teaches:

R. Chelbo also said, in the name of R. Huna: If one knows that his friend usually greets him, he should greet him first, as it is written, “Seek peace and pursue it” (Tehillim 34:15). And if [his friend] greeted him [first] and he does not return [the greeting], he is called a robber, as it is written, “It is you who have consumed the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses” (Yeshayahu 3:14).

Why is this considered “robbery”? Because the act of refraining to greet someone, ignoring him, nullifies his worth. A person who is not greeted is transparent; he has no importance or identity. He is a mere number or datum, not a person.

Within the verses dealing with sacrifices, we encounter a commandment that seems out of place:

And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not finish completely the corners of your field when you reap, nor shall you gather any gleaning of your harvest; you shall leave them to the poor and to the stranger; I am the Lord your God. (23:22)

Seemingly, this verse belongs together with the other commandments concerning gifts to the poor and the welfare of weaker sectors of society that are found elsewhere. Why does it appear here? The Rambam writes in Hilkhot Yom Tov (6:18):

What is entailed [in the commandment to rejoice on the festivals]? To one’s children he gives roasted seeds, nuts, and sweets; for women one should buy attractive clothes and jewelry, according to his means. Men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no happiness without eating meat, nor is there happiness without drinking wine.

And when a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a festival], he is obligated to feed the convert, the orphan and the widow, along with others who are destitute and poor. For one who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is not partaking of the joy of the mitzva, but rather the joy of his stomach. And with regard to this sort of person it is written (Hoshe’a 9), “Their sacrifices will be like the bread of mourners; all who partake of them shall become impure, for their bread was [kept] for themselves alone.” And such rejoicing is a disgrace for them, as it is written (Malakhi 2), “I will spread dung on your faces; the dung of your festival celebrations.”

The absence of social awareness and concern damages a person’s Divine service. Someone who tries to serve God without paying any attention to the people around him, ultimately ends up “rejoicing in his stomach.”

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l used to make mention of the rather surprising law permitting one to greet someone else during his recitation of the Shema or its preceding blessings. Perhaps we are used to this law, but if we think about it, it seems to make little sense. How can the greeting be so urgent that it can justify interrupting the Shema?

Rav Soloveitchik explains that by not greeting someone who walks by us and ignoring him, we would be turning him into an object. So grave is this snubbing that the Halakha permits the interruption.

The Blasphemer’s Response

“And the son of an Israelite woman, his father being an Egyptian man, emerged…” – from whence did he emerge? He emerged from his tortured self-identity. The blasphemer feels that he is cut off from society and stands alone, and therefore he blasphemes and curses. This is a sort of magic solution for cutting ties with society: a severance from life at one’s own initiative, prompted by a sense of social rejection, where others refuse to address the person’s identity.

The gemara (Berakhot 17a) teaches:

It was said of R. Yochanan ben Zakkai that no one ever preceded him in greeting, not even a non-Jew in the marketplace.

R. Yochanan ben Zakkai took care to always acknowledge and greet the other person first, even an Arab in the marketplace. This demonstrates genuine, full attention, with respectful containment of even the margins of society. The standard that is set here means that acknowledgment and greetings are extended not only to the margins of Jewish society, but even to non-Jews.

Greeting even non-Jews in the marketplace, concern for the poor, for converts, for the weaker sectors of society – this is what creates social solidarity and a feeling on the part of everyone that he has a place.

The Blasphemer’s Punishment

Although the midrash presents two different interpretations of the blasphemer’s behavior, ultimately he is put to death by stoning. This offers a lesson in the proper attitude towards a person who commits an unacceptable offense out of personal distress. Perhaps he is full of anger towards his parents or towards society, but this in no way justifies a violation of his relationship with God.

Neither theological, philosophical difficulties nor psycho-social challenges permit a person to react in any way that he sees fit. He must cope within the social framework within which he functions, without shattering its conventions.

Visiting the Yeshiva – Engagement vs. Marriage

This Shabbat we are hosting boys who will be first-year students at the yeshiva next year. On the one hand, we feel a significant closeness towards them; on the other hand, they are not completely part of the yeshiva. This creates a strange lack of clarity as to the nature of the relationship, something akin to the period between engagement and marriage.

A couple that has been dating for a few months with a feeling that they are well-suited to one another proceeds to get engaged. Now they have recognized their feelings for each other and are committing themselves to a joint path, but they are still not completely together. At this stage, when every Shabbat raises the question of whether or not to visit the fiancée, there is the underlying reticence with regard to the encounter with the rest of the family. Every comment by an older sister or jibe by a younger brother might arouse embarrassment… and so the best approach is simply to break the ice.

We, too, will try to break the ice by greeting our visitors, showing an interest in them, and seeking ways to demonstrate fraternity. Breaking the ice is important on the level of the yeshiva, but it is no less so in other, broader circles. Within one’s family, community, neighborhood, circles of friends, and new acquaintances, it is important to make contact and ensure that another person is not pushed to the margins, becoming “the son of an Israelite who went out.”

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Emor 5774 [2014].)