Leviticus 21:1 to 24:23
This portion contains one of only two narrative episodes found in Leviticus. This story, about a man who spoke the Lord’s name in blasphemy. Although his punishment – the death penalty – may seem severe, we find many legal traditions rooted in the story.
“The Eternal One said to Moses: Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them….” (Lev. 21:1) And so we begin another parsha with the words of the Eternal directed toward Moses. This message consists of the laws and rules stating what can and can’t be done by priests so they remain holy…. Because, there are no priests today, these laws have little actual impact on us as Reform Jews.
The second topic covered in this parsha is a discussion of the yearly festival cycle.
But what caught my attention in this week’s reading is a short narrative at the end of the parsha.
“There came out among the Israelites a man whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite man. The son of the Israelite woman pronounces the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses – now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan – and he was placed in custody until the decision of the Eternal should be made clear to them.”
“And the Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Take the blasphemer outside the camp and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the community leadership stone him.”
“And to the Israelite people speak this: Anyone who blasphemes God shall bear the guilt, and one who pronounces the name of the Eternal shall be put to death. The community leadership shall stone that person, stranger or citizen – having thus pronounced the Name – shall be put to death.” (Lev. 24: 10-16)
“Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Eternal had commanded Moses.” (Lev.24:23)
With the exception of only one other narrative, all of Leviticus is composed of laws, rules and commandments from God. The only other “story” relates the death of Aaron’s sons.
Because the narratives in Leviticus is so rare, this commentator felt that there must be a reason for this “story.” And, yes…. There are several important concepts that can be learned.
First, we note that the “blasphemer” is a man without a tribe. He was born to an Israelite women. The tribe which a person belonged depended upon the father’s line. So this person is linked to his Egyptian father…. As a result, he has no tribal identification. So, by interpretation of this narrative, the laws of Torah apply to all – Israelite or foreigner.
Second, we note that the only name given in the episode is that of the Israelite mother, Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan. We don’t learn the name of the blasphemer or his father…. Shelomoith’s name lives forever…. A large amount of blame is placed upon her. She should have taught her son the law. As an Israelite, she should have acted differently. Based on this, every Israelite is responsible to make sure that the laws of the Eternal are observed. By not doing so, a bit of the guilt is even placed on the observer. We all have some responsibility for the actions of others… especially our family members.
Third, regarding the blasphemy…. The man pronounced the name of the Eternal. In
Biblical times, only the priests had the power to pronounce this name. Use of the name was considered a sacred activity associated with the worship of the Eternal. By using the name, this person actually challenged the authority of the priests and their monopoly over this religious activity…. Thus challenging what is acceptable to Judaism at this time. (Rabbi Valerie Lieber-Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom, Brooklyn, NY, Women’s Torah Commentary, Jewish Lights, p. 235)
In her article, Rabbi Leiber adds another dimension by looking at the naming of the mother – Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan – from a historical view. “Shelomith came from the tribe of Dan. The tribe of Dan maintained its own altars, independent of the Levitical priests, for many years. The priests of Dan served the tribes of the northern kingdom, and did not follow the same rules as the Levitcal priests in Judah. The presence of a rival priesthood and an alternative Jewish practice was intolerable for the descendants of Aaron. Any way that they could undermine its success helped them to gain full control over the religious lives of all Israelites through the downfall of their rivals in Dan. This entire episode can be seen as a threat to destroy any rivals.”
“Alternative visions of Jewish practice were never fully squelched by the Levitcal priests. There were always men and women who practiced folk religion in taking of vows, talking to the dead and in worshiping a goddess or god from a pagan religion. … The priests managed to consolidate their control, and this text functions to warn women and others who might seek religious power that they would be punished severely. Seen in this light, the text serves to further limit the independence of the marginalized members of Israelite society and encourage them to enter the mainstream.” (ibid., p.236-7)
All this from a six verse story … As we see here, sometimes a story can tell more than the statement of facts.