Monday, May 05, 2008

Parashat Emor - Displaced Persons

"The son of an Israelite woman, being also the son of an Egyptian man, went out among Benei Yisrael. And the son of the Israelite woman quarreled with an Israelite man in the camp. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced God's Name, and cursed. They brought him to Moshe. His mother's name was Shlomit, daughter of Divri, from the tribe of Dan." (24:10-11)

An argument in the camp; The name of God being publicly blasphemed. What was the cause of this rage on the part of the Blasphemer? Was it a deliberate provocation or a desperate outburst? What leads this man to curse God's name?

The text itself indicates a series of details that give us clues as to the source of the distress of the blasphemer leading to his outrageous act:
1. His problematic lineage, being of a mixed marriage (as opposed to the "Israelite man" with whom he quarrels.)
2. They quarrel "in the Camp."
3. The mention of the fact that his mother was from the Tribe of Dan.

Rashi puts it together for us.

"He (the blasphemer) had come to pitch his tent in the midst of the tribe of Dan. They asked him, 'What right have you to be here?' He said to them: 'I am of the descendants of Dan.' They said to him, 'Each man (shall camp) by his own flag, (that bears) the signs of their father's house.'"

Here we have a young man who wishes to find a place to pitch his tent in the Israelite camp. He goes to his mother's tribe - Dan - and is ejected. According to the Midrash, the case is taken to (moses') Court. The law is pronounced that Tribal lineage follows the father rather than the mother. And hence he has to go elsewhere. He is evicted. But he has nowhere to go! In his rage, or frustration, he curses God.

This parsha brings a problem into focus. I have thought about this for a while and failed to find an answer. Let me explain.

What should the Mekallel have done? Where should he pitch his tent? Where does a man from a mixed marriage live? Or is he doomed to wander between the tribes homeless, displaced?

And let us expand the question. The verse in Shemot 12:38 tells us that a "mixed multitude" - a collection of different ethnic populations - Erev Rav - tagged along with Bnei Yisrael as they left Egypt. What ever happened to these people? Where did they live? Did they have a place in the Israelite camp? Did they go their own way and depart from Bnei Yisrael [1]? Traditional sources insist that they remained with Am Yisrael, however they became a major problem as the developed as an insurgent group, instigating rebellion and sin. [2]

And so, I return to the problem. Where did the "Erev Rav" encamp?

In Sefer Bamidbar ch.1 the Israelite camp is organised into 12 marching divisions, twelve army units. There is no mention of the Erev Rav! Now it is possible that until Sefer Bamidbar, encampment arrangements were informal and random. But from the second year in the wilderness, the camp was certainly ordered.

Did the Erev Rav encamp at the outskirts of the camp? When I think about the notion of a different ethnic group, a minority grouping amongst Israel being ejected from the mainstream, relegated to the fringes of the camp, I cannot see this but as a recipe for problems. We should not be at all surprised when this group cause trouble.

In Israel today there are ongoing discussions about the center as opposed to the "periphery", the outlying regional areas in Israel. The periphery is remote, lacking access to services, and frequently weaker economically. The common wisdom is that special attention must be paid to weaker groups so that they not fester in the periphery but rather to draw them to the center, strengthened, reinforced in their sense of belonging , their identity, their education. If immigrants from problematic backgrounds are placed at the periphery, they remain apart, alienated, and then become delinquent, disgruntled, and the problems escalate.

In today's world if you had a kid from a problematic home situation, a complicated ethnic background (it could not have been simple for an Egyptian and Jew to parent a child... See the Midrashim who suggest fascinating scenarios here) and who could not even find a home, a place to pitch his tent - just like the mekallel -we would seek to include him, to embrace him. we would send the social workers out and help this guy! We could certainly see the writing on the wall simply by reading this kid's file! One can palpably sense the alienation and potential displacement in this person's mind.

(And ask Educators... A kid's rejection of Judaism is more often than not a product of his home environment and whether his Jewish-religious peers and the community welcome him and make him feel respected and as if he belongs. Frequently the social factor seriously outweighs any theological factor!)

Now of course, other readings are possible. Possibly the mekallel instigated all this and was looking for trouble, bent upon rebellion against God. Other readings in this parsha are certainly viable. And yet, beyond the story of the Blasphemer, the "Erev Rav" question still niggles me. How can we let this group, who are anyhow unintegrated into Israelite culture and society, how can we allow them to reside apart, alienated, at the outskirts of the camp? It certainly seems to be inviting serious problems.

I think that somebody once suggested that Moshe Rabbeinu himself took the Erev Rav under his wing [3] and that they encamped with him in the epicenter of the camp. I have such a vague recollection of this idea that I think I might have invented it (!). Anyhow, I have never found a source for this.

Any ideas on this topic are more than welcome!

{1} See Ramban on Shemot 19:1 and Bamidbar 1:18 in which theer is an impression that Bnei Yisrael are deliberately seperated from teh Erev Rav. Was this an attempt to eject them??

{2} See Rashi Shemot 32:4; Rashi Bamidbar 11:1,4

{3} See Rashi to Shemot 32:7 and 34:1. Here Moshe is connected personally with the Erev Rav as if they are his responsibility. According to Rashi, Moshe personally accepted them and converted them and he is seen a their patron in some way. (See also Shemot Rabba 42:6)


Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

i would have expected that if Moshe had the ‘Eirev Rav camp with him, they would have turned out better.

not to dismiss your idea, though; it's a great idea, that detail just seems problematic

DebbieZ said...

Rav Alex,
This was really a beautiful idea, did the recent RCA statement have anything to do with it? It kind of reminded me of an article I just read which discusses woman leaving Orthodoxy because of all the brick walls they face.