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It seems like the entire world is trying to deal with the problem of how to treat the stranger. From the migrants pouring into Europe and elsewhere from Africa and the Middle East, due to Islamist terror and state butchery, to Mexicans looking for a better life (mostly in areas stolen from Mexico by America not that long ago, but who wants to talk about that), to Israel trying to deal with its Arab population, Russian and Ethiopian olim, and African migrants, much of the world is trying to figure out whether or not to welcome these people or deport them, accept them as equals or marginalize them. Here’s a story that might help us in our thinking.
This week’s parsha, Emor, concludes with a tragic story: a man, identified by the Torah as the son of an Israelite woman, Shlomit bat Divri of the tribe of Dan, and an Egyptian man, goes out into the Israelite camp and gets into a fight, during the course of which he curses and blasphemes God, an act for which he is arrested. He is then, at God’s command, stoned to death.
The Torah is silent as to the reason for the fight and the blasphemy, but the Rabbis find many hints which they use to flesh out the story, often in differing directions. They fill in the details of what his issues were and the identity of his father; he is understood to have been the Egyptian taskmaster whom Moshe killed, which complicates the Midrashic narrative, but that is not our topic. The Rabbis, broadly speaking, say this man was a Jew, either because his mother was, after all, Jewish, or, if you think that at that historical period Jewishness was determined by the father; (certainly, tribal affiliation was), because he converted.
The fight itself was about that tribal affiliation. The blasphemer, as the son of an Egyptian father, was denied a place in the camp among his mother’s tribe, Dan, or with any other tribe, and that is what he was angry about. The Rabbis add that, apparently as a result of previous slights or negative interactions, he had already begun to blaspheme, making fun of elements of the sacrificial rite in the Tabernacle. Connecting the psychological dots here is simple: denied a place among his Jewish mother’s tribe – in a court, some Rabbis say, presided over by Moshe himself - shunned as an “Egyptian”, an outsider, his anger leads him to question Judaism’s laws, start a fight, and, as the anger gets worse, ultimately curse the God of Israel.
Now, this puts us in a strange situation. Either born into it or a convert, this man is a Jew, living in or near the Israelite camp in the desert, and desiring a place within it. Even if you hold that the halacha of the time sees him as having been born non-Jewish, the Rabbis insist – and Rashi, in his commentary on the Torah, repeats it - that he converted. So what we have is a Jew, with a non-Jewish father, being denied a place in the camp.
We will assume that Moshe was right to make the determination that, legally, he could not demand a place among the tribe of Dan, and that his place, I guess, would be among the erev rav – the large group of non-Jews (Egyptians who may or may not have converted to Judaism) who accompanied the Israelites out of Egypt, and who are understood to be the group blamed by the Torah for some of the Israelite’s misbehavior in the desert. But, even if Moshe was right, and his legal place was outside of the tribal camp and with the mixed multitude, one has to wonder: could room not have been found for this poor fellow? Unlike the majority (all?) of the erev rav, the blasphemer has a Jewish mother and, we are told, converted (if you hold he needed to). One can only wish that someone in the camp, from the tribe of Dan or not, could have made room for him, and averted this horrible outcome.
I think we need to see this story as a failure – not only of the blasphemer, in that he lost it and wrongly reacted to his admittedly difficult situation, but, more importantly, on the part of the Israelites and their leadership. Unlike the mixed multitudes, who were either non-Jews or Egyptians who in some way may have converted to Judaism, this fellow has a real, natural connection to the Jewish people: he was born to and perhaps raised by a Jewish mother (it’s not clear if he spent his early years as an Israelite or Egyptian, and may have only joined them after the exodus). Surely he has a claim, of sorts, to be accepted as one of the Israelites. Surely, accepting him would have prevented the fight, the blasphemy, his execution, and the desecration of God’s name.
In terms of public policy in Israel, this story should certainly teach us to be much more open to and accepting of those who want to join us from a place of pre-existing connection, such as the non-halachically Jewish, but Jewishly connected, immigrants from Russia and elsewhere, as well as those, such as the Jews from Ethiopia, whose Jewish background may be a bit blurry, but who certainly have strong Jewish roots and histories. These people all live among us and, like our poor tragic hero, are looking for a place within their camp, the only camp they have; we should give it to them before they get angry enough to fight, and blaspheme.
I would argue that we need to look at our Israeli Arab population in a different but somewhat similar fashion. They have been here quite a long time, are connected to the place, are citizens, and, though not interested in becoming Jews, are, for the most part, certainly interested in being Israelis; room in the camp needs to be found for them as well, before it is too late.
For other countries, with different issues of security, history, culture, and demography, I would argue that a different but similar dynamic is in play. Of course, there are some outside the camp who are looking to enter it just in order to blow it up, and vigilance is needed. However, many of your immigrants are looking to find a place in the camp, to be a real part of your society. If that place can be made for them, all kinds of negative results can be avoided, and your societies will be enriched by the presence of people who appreciate who and what you are, and want to play a productive role in the life of your countries.