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‘A desperate cry for help’

Three years ago, as Spring finally arrived in New York City, my wife and I went for a walk in Riverside Park. Enjoying our first Shabbat afternoon stroll of the season, we noticed a group of boys on bikes riding in the center of the walking path at a pace that seemed faster than usual. Moving to the side, we anticipated that these bikers would simply ride by, enabling us to resume our walk in the park.

However, as the bicycles passed by, I noticed that these young riders were moving their hands and screaming things at me that truly did not register at first. Suddenly I understood that these teens were gesturing the slitting of a throat and shaped their hands into guns pointed at us. We were already on the side on the path, but they steered towards our direction to push us off the path completely. To punctuate their antisemitic intentions, the final boy in the pack pointed at my yarmulke and yelled: “You f*&@ing Jew. The Holocaust never happened.”

Initially Julie and I tried to believe it was a childish prank, but there was nothing childish or amusing about it.

A similar sense of exasperation and frustration overtakes me whenever I read about the young man at the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion, Emor. The son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man walks into the middle of the biblical desert camp, gets into a fight, and then publicly pronounces the sacred name of God. For the sin of blasphemy, this man is stoned by the hands of those who heard his irreverent words.

The seriousness of the blasphemer’s actions cannot be clearer. Taking God’s name in vain is a transgression. We cannot help but wonder, having just experienced the Exodus and Revelation at Sinai, what would possibly provoke this young man to act so recklessly?

We know so little about the blasphemer, not even his name. To make some sense of this episode, Rashi focuses on the first word of the story, “Vayaytzei,” that translates as “he went out.” Citing a Midrash, he explains believes that the man’s leaving describes his exit from the court, where his request to live among the tribe of Dan, his mother’s lineage, has been denied. Walking out of the court, he curses God, the ultimate Law Giver. As soon as the words leave his mouth, he has essentially left the fold and sealed his fate.

Clarifying the obstacles facing this man, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes: “The camp was organized on a tribal basis, with the divisions of tribes determined according to the patrilineal lineage. This meant that although the son of (a Jewish woman and) an Egyptian man was a member of the Jewish people he was not a member of any tribe. There was consequently no place for him in the camp.”

This framing invites us to look at this man in a new light. People frequently cry out when they feel that “the system” has failed them. Yearning to find his place, he is an outsider. The son of two communities, he belongs in neither.

Perhaps this man purposely cries out to God in desperation because having failed in Yeshiva Shel Matah, this world’s court of appeals, he appeals to Yeshiva Shel Mallah, the Court on High. However, despite his intentions, this despondent individual tragically does not understand that his actions carry grave consequences.

The story in this week’s Torah portion is a cautionary tale about using God’s name in vain. At the same time, this outsider in the Israelite camp teaches us as much about the power of words as the necessity for proactive, intentional, and ongoing inclusion with the Jewish community and beyond.

While impossible to overlook his transgression, we can look at this estranged man with a heavy heart and imagine how things might have turned out differently.

My disturbing experience in Riverside Park several years ago left me shocked and angry. At the same time, I was saddened by the actions of the boys who threatened us. Even now I still wish I could talk to these teens and find common ground. When we know each other’s stories, we have a chance of creating a future that belongs to all of us.

About the Author
Rabbi Charlie Savenor is the incoming Executive Director of Civic Spirit. A graduate of Brandeis, JTS and Columbia University's Teachers College, he blogs on parenting, education, and leadership. In addition to supporting IDF Lone Soldiers, he serves on the international boards of Leket Israel and Gesher. He is writing a book called "What My Father Couldn't Tell Me."
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