Jewish Journal


May 8, 2012

Back Story



A dozen years ago I skimmed Steve Covey’s book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.  I am not sure that skimming it made me more effective than reading it but I skimmed it none the less.  Twelve years later one story still resonates with me from Covey’s work, I reflect on it probably once a week in my rabbinate and its insight continues to inform my work with people.  Covey tells the story of observing a father on a quiet subway car.  The man’s children were running wild amongst the quiet passengers and causing quite a disturbance.  Everyone is disturbed by the behavior and the father appears oblivious to what is taking place.  Covey turns the father and says, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more.”  The father stirs from his oblivion, turns to Covey and responds, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’

Covey is left speechless as all of his assumptions are torn asunder, and uses the incident to explain the power of paradigm shifts, the values check that emerges when we uncover a back story we never considered, when we discover the why behind the actions of others. 

A similar incident happens in this week’s parsha, Emor.  In Leviticus 24:10 we read of a man born to an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father.  The young man attempts to set his camp among his mother’s ancestral tribe and is rejected on the grounds that one must camp by the tribe of their father.  The young man’s father is Egyptian, he has no place to camp.  A fight breaks out between him and an Israelite member of the tribe and in the course of the fight he blasphemy’s God’s name.  For this sin the young man is brought to Moses and held in custody until God ordains that he be stoned to death for the sin of blasphemy.

As severe as the judgement may appear to our modern sensibilities, it is juxtaposed with the passage about and eye for an eye and is not out of place with other biblical decrees.  But a peculiar fact is mentioned in the text that causes many to question this assumption. 

While we never learn the name of the blasphemer, the text does explicitly reveal his mother’s name; Shelomith bat Divri.  She is the only woman mentioned by name in the entire book of Leviticus.  Why?  What bearing does his mother have on his actions?  A close reading of the text reminds us we have met this woman before.  She is the wife of the Hebrew foreman, who is beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster so severely that Moses takes matters into his own hands and kills the taskmaster in cold blood (Ex. 2:11). 

Why was the taskmaster beating Shelomith’s husband?  Because earlier that day he raped Shelomith and the husband saw it - trying to cover his tracks the taskmaster attempted to work him to death.  The blasphemer was the issue of that union.  (Ex Rab 1:28, Lev Rab 32:4)

Paradigm shift!  With this as back story perhaps we understand why this young man curses G-d when he is kicked out of the camp?  We can feel his rage and frustration.  We can hear him pleading “Have you no room for me within the community of the Jewish people?  After what my mother went through, after all the teasing and contempt I have experienced for something I had no control over?  I was raised by my mother, (and step-father) - never knew my birth father - killed the day I was conceived.  Where do I belong if not among this people, my people, the only family and faith I have ever known.”

For me the story and its harsh resolution is a cautionary tale.  I have found that most people do not act indiscriminately, there is usually a reason, often a good reason for every action and reaction.  Understanding those reasons, the back story helps me to determine my response.  I can’t help but wonder how this whole series of events would have been different if somewhere along the way someone stopped and simply asked why?

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