114/929 What we do if you don’t fit in: Vayikra 24

What do we do with those people who don’t quite fit in? Vayikra has presented us with the requirement to be holy, defined by many laws in many areas of our lives. What about a person who doesn’t make the ‘holiness’ cut, who doesn’t live up to all those high standards?

It’s a critical question for parents, for educators, for community. One Midrash offers a horrifyingly harsh answer.

“And the son of a Jewish woman went out.” Went out? From where? One Midrash provides the following back story. Attempting to pitch his tent amongst the tribesmen of his mother, he meets with resistance. “Your mother is from Dan, not your father. You don’t belong here.” Where does he belong, this son of an Egyptian man? Not in our backyard, apparently. He enters Moshe’s court, seeking a defender, perhaps a compassionate ear. But Moshe’s legal decision endorses the exclusionary politics of the tribe of Dan. Angry, bitter, rejected, the man leaves, and curses the God whose people has no place for him.

The Torah’s response to this action born of pain and rejection? Public stoning.

Nechama Leibowitz tries to justify it, writing: “Sometimes, the law causes individual hardship, and the victim feels unjustly treated. But it is the individual’s duty to accept the hardship in the interest of the public good.”

For me, that’s hard to swallow, so I search for other voices, and find the following wonderfully subversive Midrash which picks up on the theme of treatment of the mamzer, but presents a very different message.

Another word on “And the son of a Jewish woman went out”-

This is related to the verse: ‘And I sat and saw all of the oppressed…’ (Kohellet 4): Daniel the tailor explains that these words are talking about the plight of the mamzer.

‘Behold the tears of the oppressed’– if their fathers committed sins, why should it matter to these poor children? If their father had illicit relations- what did the child sin?

‘and they have no one to comfort them’ but only ‘from the hands of their oppressors is power’from the hand of the great Sanhedrin, that comes to them by the power of the Torah and distances them because it says ‘A mamzer shall not come into the congregation of God‘.

‘And they have no one to comfort them’ God says- I will comfort them, for in this world, there is chaff among you, but in the future, Zecharia says “I saw the menorah, all gold.”

In this Midrash, the court is the source of the harsh judgment excluding the mamzer, as Moshe’s court was.  But here, this constitutes oppression, a wrong that God himself seeks to right, using the image of the Menorah which strangely enough, opens our chapter. As we argued back in 87/929, the Menorah represents essence, pure light which can be shared by all Jews, regardless of how well they fit in.

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This is my dailyish blog reflection on the 929 chapters of Tanach. Learn more about 929 at 929.org.il– a wonderful project with an incredible message of inclusion, spreading Menorah light in the world.

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.
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