Our Torah portions over the past several weeks have explicitly focused on holiness. We started with G!D’s command/promise: “You will be Holy!” (Lev. 19:2), which was followed by instructions on how to actually live “Holy” (among others: “do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind” and “love your neighbor as yourself”). The Torah also goes into great detail about how the Levites – the priests who were the community’s primary stewards of holiness – were mandated to act on behalf of themselves and the community. After studying with Rabbi Mark, I was reminded that the Hebrew word for holy means “to elevate,” “to separate,” and “to connect.” We’re given these instructions in order to guide us into making healthy/elevated decisions that honor ourselves, those around us, and G!D. Often times, making choices that reflect holiness requires a healthy sense of boundaries, and I believe one of the reasons the Torah goes into such great detail here is to send us the message: distinctions matter, and boundaries should be respected.
And the Torah spends several chapters specifying a range of different distinctions, but then switches gears and includes a curiously brief narrative that allows us a glimpse at separation and distinctions from a different perspective. In Leviticus 24: 10, we are told:
There came out among the Israelites one 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. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced 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 Lord should be made clear to them.
Clearly, something must have happened for this unnamed perpetrator, traditionally referred to as the “the blasphemer,” to cross such a clear boundary as cursing the Name of G!D. Unfortunately, the text provides limited information about who he was and why he acted out in such an egregious way. Luckily, there are several midrashs that offer additional context and perspective. The Sifra 14:1 explains:
Where did he “go out” from? The Beit-Din (Court of Judgement) of Moses,.. after emerging with an unfavorable ruling, he arose, and blasphemed.
So the blasphemer, following a court ruling that went against him, acted out of rage and projected his anger against G!D, the Ultimate Authority. What type of ruling could have elicited such a destructive response?
For he came to pitch his tent in the midst of the camp of Dan
Whereupon they said to him: “Who are you that you would pitch your tent in the midst of the camp of Dan?”
He: “My mother was of the tribe of Dan.”
They: “Scripture states (Bamidbar 2:2) ‘The Israelites shall encamp; each with his standard by signs according to their fathers’ house shall the children of Israel encamp’”…
The court case was a disagreement about tribal affiliation and belonging. The blasphemer wanted to be, and believed he was, part of the tribe; however, the rest of members thought otherwise. The blasphemer believed that even though his connection to the tribe was through his mother’s lineage, he still qualified for membership. Moses’ ruling left him excluded, alone without a tribe, and ultimately without a sense of where he belonged.
Not fitting in is such a core wound for many of us! Through life experience and our own choices we’ve found ourselves, seemingly, on the outside looking in. I believe the Torah includes this narrative to caution us about the risks and dangers of focusing excessively on distinctions and separation. It’s there to warn us that when we get too caught up in attending only to ourselves, our tribes, our people, we begin to diminish the holiness that all of our relationships are capable of containing. Losing sight of this can lead us to objectify and vilify others – turning people into “other,” whether it be individuals, tribes, or nationalities.
Recovery means belonging, doing the work that honors myself and my needs; and it also means being sensitive to honoring another and their needs. It means recognizing that boundaries exist to inform and contain holiness, not to limit and exclude other Holy Souls. Our task is to clarify and honor boundaries, that they may further elevate Holy connections.
Chaplain Adam Siegel