Learning To Play The Hand You Were Dealt
An occasional golfer one day hit a straight drive quite a way down the fairway. When he got over to the ball, he was taken aback to find someone else about to hit it. Pardon me,” he said, “You’re addressing my ball.”
“This is my ball!” replied the fellow.
“Sir,” said the stunned golfer, “If you pick it up, you’ll find my name on it.”
The man scooped the ball up and examined it. “Hey; what’s your name doing on my ball,” he protested.
One of the more sober realities of life is that it isn’t fair. No matter how much we try to right the wrongs in the world, life will still be unfair for someone somewhere. It may seem unfortunate, but that’s just the way things are and complaining about it does no good. The cards we are dealt in life, are the cards we are dealt. It’s our decision how we play our hand.
Sometimes, when we are doing everything we can to make things go our way, something totally out of our control will punch us in the stomach. It just doesn’t seem fair. Well guess what, sometimes it isn’t fair, at least from a human perspective. That’s the very painful truth about our lives.
No matter who we are, there will be times when something unfair will happen, or be done, to us – something that feels so unjust that our heads spin for days, or even weeks. We live with these little thoughts of disbelief. Sometimes we lose control of our emotions and even fantasize about getting even. When our balance is momentarily kicked sideways, it can be difficult to get a good sense of direction. But anger or revenge seldom make it any better.
Some of us are born leaders. Some of us are followers. Some of us have unique talents. Some of us don’t have any. Some of us have great confidence. Some of us are forever burdened with inferiority complex. Some of us care only what we’re thought of; others couldn’t care less.
Fairness is not necessarily part of the bargain. When fairness seems to fly out the window, we must not allow our inspiration to go with it. There is always a new path that oftentimes proves to be better than the one we were on. Once we come to grips with this reality; when we stop asking why me – how come this one is richer than me, or that one is smarter than me – our lives become much happier.
There are many examples of people who got passed over for a promotion, lost the love of their lives, or had to change their lifestyles drastically, who found a way to reinvent themselves, move forward, and turn things around. History is replete with people that have, against all odds, made themselves into a success story. Their challenge was the catalyst for their success, not failure. They didn’t blame others for their issues, and instead took action regardless of the circumstances.
While we’ve all heard this before, we may sometimes wonder whether or not this is a Jewish attitude. Some may be certain that it is not, as a man once told me: “Rabbi, that ideology is way too harsh to be Jewish.” Well, surprise! The notion that life is not fair and that we have two choices, to evolve or self destruct, is as Jewish as Matzah balls and Gefilte fish, as is evident from this week’s Torah portion.
Tucked into the final Aliyah of our Parsha – which contains a long list of important laws about the Priesthood, the tabernacle, and sacred festivals – is the jarring story of a blasphemer; or ”M’kallel” – a man who blasphemes G-d.
Unsure of how to deal with the blasphemer, the Israelites put him into custody, waiting for G-d to render the appropriate verdict. G-d rules that the M’kallel should be taken out of the camp and stoned by the entire community: “The son of an Israelite woman went out – and he was the son of an Egyptian man – among the Children of Israel; they fought in the camp, this son of an Israelite woman with an Israelite man. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name of G-d and blasphemed, so they brought him to Moses. Now the name of his mother was Shlomis daughter of Divri of the tribe of Dan.” (Lev. 24:10-11)
The Torah is generally sparse with details, the Rabbis hence understood the Torah’s depiction of the blasphemer’s mixed ancestry and the name of his mother, to be central to the story; an integral factor in the crime.
In interpreting the words he “Went out,” Rashi asserts that he went out of Moses’ tribunal with a guilty verdict. Rashi proceeds to share the following Midrashic background: “He had come to pitch his tent within the encampment of the tribe of Dan, but they said to him: ‘What right do you have to be here?’ the M’kallel responded: ‘I am a descendant of Dan,’ (claiming lineage through his mother, who was from the tribe of Dan). They said to him: ‘But Scripture (Num. 2:2) states: “The children of Israel shall encamp each man by his grouping according to the insignias of his father’s household,’” refuting thereby his maternal claim. He then appealed to Moshe’s tribunal, where his case was tried and he came out guilty. He then proceeded to blaspheme.”
According to the Midrash, quoted by Rashi, when this Jew who participated in the Exodus and stood with his people at Sinai comes to set up his tent with his mother’s tribe, they reject him saying that Jewish law demands that he camp with his father’s tribe. His father, of course, is an Egyptian and thus has no tribe. So he is, essentially told, “You don’t belong here. You are not really one of us.
He proceeds to takes the case to Moshe, but to his astonishment, Moshe backs the tribe’s position. What does the M’kallel do when he is told he doesn’t belong anywhere? He demonstrates his deep sense of betrayal by pronouncing the ineffable Divine Name in curse.
Being a Mamzer, having no legitimate place in the camp of Israel, he suffered deep rejection. He likely blamed the entire “System.” He was angry with the leadership, the people, and ultimately G-d Himself. In the end, he takes the most profound symbol of his Jewish identity – the secret name of G-d that he heard at Sinai – and degrades it in mock. As a result of his virulent conduct, G-d rules that the M’kallel is to be punished by death.
At first glance this story appears to be very troubling, not only because a person is sentenced to death as a result of an angry outburst, but because it appears to be a case of justice gone awry. Given his undisputed victim status, his verdict seems way too harsh.
If, by no doing of his own, the M’kallel finds himself in a state of total alienation, despised and rejected – If, by no doing of his own, he is treated as a stranger among his own people – why does G-d; the Lord of compassion and mercy, meet out such a severe punishment. Is he not, after all a pitiful misfit that is not to blame? Can’t his angry outburst and animosity towards G-d be understood.
The difficulty is further exacerbated in face of the widespread consensus among the Midrashic authorities that his disadvantaged status began all the way back to the moment of his conception – his mother’s unfortunate bad luck regarding the circumstances which had brought him into the world.
According to the various Midrashic commentaries, the union of his parents was not the result of intermarriage, his mother, Shlomis Bat Divri, was in fact married to Jewish man. He was rather fathered by an Egyptian taskmaster as a result of trickery, or through force, depending on the respective Midrash. In the above light the M’kallel is an even greater victim. Why then the lack of sympathy?
The answer is that victim or not, one does not have the right to lash out against others as a result of their misfortune, and certainly not against G-d, not only because it is non productive or beneficial, but because it is downright destructive. It breeds a pernicious atmosphere, which leaves a noxious void in its wake. The venom of those who consider themselves accountable to no deity – who worship only human reason and feelings as a moral compass, has brought us the Holocaust and the horrors of Stalin.
Worse even is the combination of religious extremism added to the rampant secularism. While such a combination may appear contradictory, and often it is, the Torah presents at least one case of such a combination, it is indeed the blasphemous son of our Parsha.
It is one (albeit terrible) thing to ignore or even deny the existence of G-d. However, it is even worse to accept the existence of G-d, only to curse Him. This is the most harmful manner to undermine religion. To actually accept the existence of G-d, but to claim that He poorly manages the world and to attribute to Him acts of evil.
At a superficial glance, such a claim may to some extent be understood, if mistaken. A believing Jew may, even must, question G-d in his struggle to decipher His unknowable ways; but that questioning must not lead us away from Him, and certainly not serve as permission to curse Him. The mantra of the Jew must be that “He is a faithful G-d, never unfair, righteous and moral is He”( Devarim 32:4).
The severity of blasphemy is such that it is considered one of the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach , one of the seven universally binding Noachide laws, for which (theoretically) the penalty for violation is death.
After stating that one “Who blasphemes the name of G-d shall be put to death” (24:16), the Torah relates a seemingly unrelated law, one which the Torah has stressed previously and appears to need little reinforcement: “One who takes a human life must be put to death” (24:17).
The Torah appears to be implying that a murder is an inevitable byproduct of a society that can curse the Creator. Human life is a reflection of the image of G-d, and once we deny that image, it is easy to justify murder. It is, after all, just the destruction of a cluster of cells that make up the mass of matter we call a human being.
We must be extremely wary of the inescapable relationship between blasphemous speech and blasphemous action. It is rare for evil to flourish without being preceded by an ideology of hate and propaganda.
The speech of a Jew is one that must always sanctify the name of G-d. We are bidden to sing the praises of G-d, to give thanks to Him for all of our blessings even while simultaneously praying for the fulfillment of our needs. That is a critical safeguard to society.
And yet one cannot leave the story of the blasphemer, without recognizing communal and personal responsibility for his tragic plight. An additional lesson that we must take from this Parsha is that when a Jew who considers himself part of the people is turned away by his community, the results can be devastating, both for him, and for the community as a whole.
Immediately after the sin, the Torah gives the name of the mother, the grandfather, and the Tribe, as if to say, all of these people are to blame. The action of the community, or lack thereof may have indeed prompted his anger and his sense of betrayal. Deep down, the Jewish parent, and even the Jewish grandparent and extended family, did not do enough to insure a love of G-d and a loyalty to Jewish law.
The Torah names Shlomis Bas Divri – the only woman mentioned by name in the entire book of Leviticus – to remind us that the primary responsibility lies with the Jewish parent.
Rabbi Yitzchak Karo, in his commentary Toldos Yitzchak, ponders why the laws of blasphemy are located following the series of laws of the sanctity of the priesthood, sacrifices, Shabbos and Holydays, and certain ritual items in the Mishkan?
He suggests that the blasphemer seeks to repudiate everything through his blasphemy, including the very existence of G-d – as if there is no Law and Judge. In other words, the Torah first teaches us at length about the significance of sanctity in Israelite society and then presents us with the blasphemer – the arch-desecrator of the sacred.
A society which concentrates on promoting the quest for sanctity, he asserts, will necessarily express its revulsion when that sanctity is desecrated. Such a society will certainly understand blasphemy as a most extreme form of deviance.
May we take to heart the lessons of our Parsha and accept our lot in life with love and respect for the giver of life and our particular mission in life. May we execute our critical responsibility as parents and as fellow Jews in imparting the sanctity of Torah and Mitzvos within all of Israel , this will, of course leave no room for a “rejected blasphemes son.” This will, of course, bring G-d’s ultimate purpose of creation to fruition with the coming of the righteous Moshiach BBA.