William Hamilton

Likeness and likability

Who are you?  “I’m a foreman in a factory” would have been a typical answer decades ago.  But these days, with economic stress and a decline in manufacturing jobs, the same person might answer, “I’m white.  And I don’t like all those immigrants coming in.”

Yascha Mounk’s important new book The People vs. Democracy charts current challenges to liberal democracy around the world.  Narrowing identity along with financial insecurity and viral communication produce today’s combustable brew or populists who feed on fear and anger.  At times it seems as if every ‘us’ suspects every ‘them’.

Our portion of Torah this week contains a story of hostile identity that turns lethal.  A blasphemer, born of an Egyptian father and an Israelite mother, curses God and is stoned to death.  The blasphemer’s demise is made more vivid by the requirement that all those in listening distance (kol ha’shom’im) of his audible curse must lay their hands upon him for the administering of his capital punishment (Lev. 24:14).  Why?  One commentator suggests that the witnesses whose hands rest upon the blasphemer were also bystanders (Netziv).  Their inaction, their failure to support an outsider – born to a foreign father – may have actually contributed to his becoming so irate so as to commit such a flagrant sin.  Placing their hands upon him as he is punished grafts some responsibility for his fate upon those who failed to support him as up-standers.

The Torah’s troubling tale holds a telling message for us today.  Anger and fear are our most inciting emotions.  Yet ambush is not the natural habitat for the human soul.  ‘Identity fraud’ may threaten our wallets.  But ‘identity abuse’ which exploits religious, political, and racial differences, threatens the essence of our spirits.

Dangers and threats are, alas, all too real and must be met and debilitated.  But when we find ourselves accentuating foreignness in others, we unwittingly corrode our own inner lives.

God self-intensifies in this week’s portion as “the Bringer out of Egypt” (Hamotzi etchem) (Lev. 22:33) emphasizing our People’s founding identity as strangers brought forth from a strange land.  Purging ourselves of corrosive toxins is one way of taking our historic, national liberation more personally.

As we discover divine likeness in the unlike, may we find ‘them’ and ‘us’ to be more likable.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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