Yes, it’s last week’s parhsa. So stone me. I delivered the dvar torah in shul this morning, while our Rabbi is on sabbatical.
This week’s Torah portion consists of a long a list of important laws about the Priesthood, the tabernacle, and sacred festivals. Tucked into the last aliyah, is a short story about a man who blasphemes God. Unsure how to deal with the blasphemer, or the “m’kallel”, the Israelites put him into custody and wait for God to announce out an appropriate punishment. God decrees that the mkallel should be taken out of the camp and stoned by the entire community.
This story bears remarkable similarity to a passage that appears later in the Torah, in the book of Numbers, when a man is found gathering sticks on Shabbat. In that story, the offender is also held in custody while the community awaits God’s decree. The same punishment is meted out – he is to be taken out of the camp and stoned.
There’s a striking difference between the two stories, other than the crime itself. In the latter story, the stick collector is identified only as “a man.” In our parsha, the Torah includes two several very specific details about the identity of the offender. I’d like to look at these details and consider what the Torah might be teaching us by their inclusion.
Let’s read the introduction:
Now the son of an Israelite woman went out – he was also the son of an Egyptian man – amid the Children of Israel; and they scuffled in the camp, the son of the Israelite woman and an Israelite man. Now the son of the Israelite woman reviled HASHEM the Name and insulted it, so they brought him to Moshe – now the name of his mother was Shlomit daughter of Divri (to speak), of the tribe of Dan.
What two distinguishing facts do we know about the blasphemer? We know that he has mixed ancestry, and we know the name of his mother, Shlomit bat Divri. Since the Torah is generally so sparse with details, the Rabbis understand that each of these pieces of information must be central to the story.
According to several different midrashim, the fact that he was the son of the Egyptian was integral to his crime. Let’s look at an excerpt from Rashi to read one of these midrashim.
He “went out” of Moses’ tribunal [with a] guilty [verdict. How so?] He had come to pitch his tent within the encampment of the tribe of Dan. So [this tribe] said to him, “What right do you have to be here?” Said he, “I am of the descendants of Dan,” (claiming lineage through his mother, who was from the tribe of Dan). They said to him, “[But Scripture states (Num. 2:2): ‘The children of Israel shall encamp] each man by his grouping according to the insignias of his father’s household,’” [thereby refuting his maternal claim]. He entered Moses’ tribunal [where his case was tried], and came out guilty. Then, he arose and blasphemed.
In other words, he comes to set up his tent with his mother’s tribe. They reject him, saying that Jewish law demands that he camp with his father’s tribe. Of course, his father, an Egyptian has no tribe. So in essence, he is told – you don’t belong here. You aren’t really one of us. He takes the case to Moses, who backs up the tribe. So what does the m’kallel do?
“and he pronounced” – he pronounced the ineffable Divine Name and cursed. This [Name that must not be pronounced] was the explicit [four-letter] Divine Name that this man had heard from [the revelation at Mount] Sinai.
When this Jew who participated in the Exodus and stood with his people at Sinai, is told he doesn’t belong, he demonstrates his incredibly deep sense of betrayal. He takes the most profound symbol of his Jewish identity – the secret name of God that he heard at Sinai – and throws it in the garbage.
We learn from this parsha that when a Jew who considers himself part of the people is turned away by his community, the results can be devastating, both for him, and for the community as a whole. We’ll get back to this lesson in a little bit. But let’s look at the other piece of information we know about the m’kallel.
“Now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan,” because this son was a disgrace to his mother, to his family and to his tribe (Lev. Rabbah 32:5).
Immediately after the sin, the Torah gives the name of the mother, the grandfather, and the Tribe, as if to say, all of these people are to blame. So, while the reaction of the community may have prompted his anger and his sense of betrayal, deep down, the Jewish parent, and even the Jewish grandparent and extended family, did not do enough to insure a love of God and a loyalty to Jewish law. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that the family of a child of mixed ancestry has a unique and even greater responsibility than a parent who is partnered with another Jew. Perhaps this child needs an even stronger foothold in Jewish tradition, because of the challenges that s/he may face later in life.
There are many midrashim explaining the origin of the union of the m’kallel’s parents. Commentators agree that it was not an intermarriage, but that Shlomit Bat Divri was married to Jewish man and had relations with an Egyptian taskmaster, either willingly, through trickery, or through force, depending on the midrash. Nevertheless, I think this parsha offers an important lesson about intermarriage – that children of mixed ancestry are in a uniquely precarious position vis a vis their connection to Judaism.
Indeed, if we look at the source of the prohibition on intermarriage in the Torah, we see that the primary reason is the risk that these children will not carry on Jewish tradition. Knowing this, we might wish to consider the question – “What can we do to prevent intermarriage?” After all, isn’t that the best way to ensure Jewish continuity? As someone who was raised in a committed Jewish home, attended day school and Jewish camps, lived in Israel, and studied in yeshiva as a young adult, but found my basherte in a French Canadian who was raised Roman Catholic, I recognize that there is probably very little we can do to prevent intermarriage. I think a more productive question is – in light of the prevalence of intermarriage, how can we make sure that children of mixed marriages do not have the experience of the m’kallel– and instead – how can we actually welcome and draw these children in to the community?
The Torah names Shlomit Bat Divri – the only woman mentioned by name in the entire book of Leviticus, to remind us that the primary responsibility lies with the Jewish parent. In our family, we’ve approached this challenge by raising our daughters exclusively within the Jewish religion. I provide my daughters with a trove of Jewish experiences in the home and community, and I’ve sought out the very best Jewish education available to them.
Yet, what we see clearly from the parsha is – even the most powerful Jewish experiences and education are not enough. How the community does, or does not welcome these children, is equally fundamental. To what degree do we make these offspring feel welcome and embraced, rather than telling them to pitch their tent elsewhere?
You might be thinking – who would ever turn away a child, especially the chid of a Jewish mother, who is halachically Jewish? I want to suggest that we have to go deeper. We need to consider how do we treat the non-Jewish parent and partner – even before the birth of children. Because what I’ve learned from my own experience is that how the non-Jewish spouse is treated deeply impacts that Jewish child and the Jewish path the family takes.
I’m happy to say that our experiences in both Ashland Oregon, where we set up our first home, and in Northampton have been overwhelmingly positive. My husband Keith is made to feel welcome in ways that are both big– that he could participate on the bimah in our daughters’ baby namings – and small – that no one ever asks his last name and says “LEPINE? What an ‘interesting’ name.” In retrospect, I’m now also struck by the incredible grace of the families I taught at Solomon Schechter 7 years ago, who allowed their children to attend and sing at my wedding. These gestures have been so potent for me and for Keith– your welcoming of him has made it so much easier for me to make the Jewish community an integral part of our family’s, and most importantly, our children’s lives.
Intermarriage is a force to be reckoned with in contemporary American Jewish life. It touches every one of us in this room, whether we ourselves are intermarried, our children, our family members, or our fellow congregants. While we may disagree on many aspects of the issue, I think we can all agree that we do not want to produce a generation of “m’kallel”s. We are at a critical time in American Jewish history – we have an opportunity to be strengthened our shattered – and each of us can make a difference in the outcome.