April 27, 2010
Curse or Blessing?
Parashat Emor (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)
Our Torah portion this week contains a story filled with more tragedy and pathos than any soap opera. A young man, whose mother was an Israelite woman by the name of Shlomit bat Divri but whose father was Egyptian, gets into an argument with another fellow. Scripture does not reveal their exchange, but, as a result of this quarrel, Shlomit’s son cursed God, which was deemed a capital offense; he was executed by Moses’ court.
What is the story behind the story? Here’s the Zohar’s interpretation: When the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, one of the Egyptian taskmasters laid eyes on a very outgoing and attractive married woman, Shlomit. In order to be with her, he ordered Shlomit’s husband to work out in the field during evening hours. The Egyptian then came into the house in the middle of the night, and in the pitch darkness of a moonless night pretended to be Shlomit’s husband. He was intimate with her; Shlomit became pregnant, and the young man in our story was the product of their union. (This story, by the way, would repeat itself throughout Jewish history, when Crusaders and Nazis alike would rape Jewish women and sire children through them.)
Shlomit’s husband later discovered the Egyptian taskmaster’s treachery and confronted him. He was the slave in the early Exodus story that depicts Moses preventing an Egyptian taskmaster from striking an Israelite slave. After this event, Shlomit’s husband couldn’t handle his wife’s “betrayal,” so he divorced her and remarried. He started a new family and bore a son from his new wife. At some point, he must have shared with his son the story of his first wife and the bastard child she bore to the Egyptian taskmaster.
This, the Zohar concludes, is where our story begins. One day, somewhere in the middle of the desert encampment, Shlomit’s son met this younger version of the child he should have been. They got to shmoozing, discovered that they shared some family history, and one thing led to another (as they often do with family conversations). The younger youth revealed to his almost stepbrother: “My dad divorced your mom, Shlomit, because she slept with the Egyptian taskmaster. He married my mom instead, and that is how I, and not you, became the legitimate heir to my father.”
What did Shlomit’s son do? Did he punch his mean kinsman in the nose? No. He turned his face upward to the Lord and cursed Him. Why?
Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, the great 16th century kabbalist, explained that Shlomit’s son made the same mistake as Cain after he murdered his brother, Abel. The mystics say that after he was confronted by God, Cain’s response was, “Why blame me for Abel’s death? You, God, could have stopped me if You wanted to!” In a similar vein, Shlomit’s son, realizing the truth of his opponent’s words, complained to God about his own miserable status: “Here I am, the only illegitimate child in all of Israel, whose mother, through no fault of her own, was bedded by an evil Egyptian taskmaster, the father I’ve never met. Why me? What did I do to deserve this? God, You could have stopped this! Why did You allow this to happen? Why did You let me be born?”
We all have tremendous compassion and pity for this young man, who was so crushed by his opponent’s words. And yet, he was the one put to death for cursing God, not the other lad who so cruelly instigated him.
Yes, all this is true. But it’s also true that how we react to adversity makes all the difference in the world. Many are born into situations in life — familial or otherwise — that are far from optimal. The cry of “Why me, God?” is usually inappropriate because it leads us nowhere beyond self-pity.
Instead, the cry should be, “What do You have planned for me, God? With this heavy albatross You’ve hung around my neck, what do You see for my future?” God’s answer may not be so readily audible, but we should believe that He has a plan for each and every person. Sometimes it is precisely for those who carry the heaviest weights that God has the greatest plans. Just like an athlete who strengthens his muscles with leg weights when training for a marathon, so do we sometimes come into this world with “training weights” that will help us succeed in the future.
Perhaps if Shlomit’s son had not cursed God, he might have become a great leader, perhaps even a prophet. Sadly, we will never know. Fortunately, our futures are still unscripted, and what we do with our lots is all up to us.
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehillah of Yavneh Hebrew Academy (yha.org).