Parashat Emor 5779
By Rabbi Ari Sunshine
Friends, Thursday night marked the end of an era. No, unfortunately I’m not talking about Dirk Nowitzki’s last game after 21 seasons, since the Mavs didn’t manage to make the playoffs, so that was over a month ago already. Actually, I’m talking about the end of another memorable 12 season run, one that was marked by stellar performances week after week, consistently entertaining the fans. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about the series finale of “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS. Now, I have to confess, for the first 6 seasons I watched the show religiously either live or on DVR and was always laughing throughout. Then, through no fault of the show, just a matter of life getting in the way, I stopped keeping up with the show, and haven’t watched in the last several seasons, but when I noticed that Thursday was going to be the series finale, I made sure to record it and watch it when I came home from work. I promise I won’t provide any spoilers, but I will say that I jumped right back into the feel of the show and found the conclusion very satisfying even after several years away.
I also listened to an interview on NPR with Mandalit Del Barco the other day about the show and found it quite interesting as well. One of the executive producers of the show, Chuck Lorre, noted that the show was always for and about geeks and nerds, and that’s why it worked. He said: “The characters were outliers and felt somewhat disenfranchised from the world and clung to each other—they created a surrogate family.” He added that he is proud that the show connected with viewers who didn’t always fit in, commenting “this is for the rest of us who weren’t the king and queen of the prom”. His co-creator of the show, Bill Prady, who used to write computer software, once talked with Lorre about how brilliant his coworkers were at programming, but how bad they could be interacting with people, and women in particular. When Prady told him about a programmer who could do amazing calculations in his head but couldn’t manage to tip the waiters in a restaurant, Lorre said, “Hang on, I’ve never seen that guy on television”. Then they made their protagonists scientists instead of programmers, and they were off to the races in creating a successful show. In the NPR interview this week, Prady became emotional and commented that “all of the people who have said that they see themselves in the show because they were outsiders and people who didn’t fit in—that was me”.
The disappointment and frustration of those on the fringes of society, those who feel like they don’t fit in or are marginalized, is not a modern-day phenomenon. It is a problem almost as old as, dare I say it, The Big Bang, or at least since human community began in ancient times and in the Bible. Take the disturbing narrative of “the blasphemer” as recounted in this week’s Torah portion, Emor: A man came out among the Israelites whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. This man, for reasons unstated in the text, gets into a heated argument with another Israelite and blasphemes the name of God. He is brought by witnesses to Moses for adjudication, after which God instructs the people, “V’samchu kol ha-shom’im et y’deyhem al rosho”, all those who heard the man curse God must lay their hands upon his head, and then the whole community must stone him to death.
Why did this man, known as the Ben-Isha Yisraelit (literally “the son of an Israelite woman”), instigate a fight with another Israelite? A 5th century C.E. Midrash [Leviticus Rabbah 32:3], rabbinic legend, imagines a vivid picture of the events preceding this altercation. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit, who as I previously mentioned had an Egyptian father and a mother from the Israelite tribe of Dan, attempted to pitch his tent in the quarters of Dan. He is rejected by his presumptive tribesman and told that since tribal affiliation is determined through the father, he has no place amongst the tribe of Dan. Even though the Ben-Isha Yisraelit clearly saw himself as an Israelite, others were unwilling to accept him. In fact, according to the medieval rabbi and commentator Rashi, he was the first child of intermarriage in Israelite or Jewish history. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit takes his case to Moses, thinking that perhaps because Moses also grew up as an outsider in Egypt, he will have empathy for his predicament. However, Moses ruled in favor of Dan, and the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, angry and dejected, responds by blaspheming God’s name.
Imagine this man’s utter disappointment in what he believed to be, wanted to be, his community. He had a religious crisis and lashed out with a religious response. As a sympathetic reader, we cannot help but feel troubled by this narrative. This is not to trivialize this man’s offense per se— after all, the Ben-Isha Yisraelit violated the prohibition of desecrating God’s name, a law stated explicitly just a few verses earlier. But what are we to make of the community’s seeming lack of compassion? As my colleague and friend Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat in the Bronx, NY, points out, a careful reading of this narrative suggests that the Torah seems unsettled by this as well.
In announcing the punishment of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, God commands the Israelites: “Let all those who heard [the blasphemy] place their hands upon his head, and let the entire congregation stone him.” Generally, the placing of hands is a symbolic gesture whereby one transfers sin onto another; such is the case with sacrifices such as the burnt offering listed at the beginning of the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, and also with the Yom Kippur ritual enacted by the High Priest back in ancient times, when he would place both his hands on the head of a live goat — the scapegoat—and confess the sins of Israel onto its head before it was sent off to die in the desert. The people who witnessed the blasphemer, most likely the very people who banished him from their midst, were obligated to atone for their lack of compassion by means of s’micha, placing their hands on his head. The Ben-Isha Yisraelit died for his transgression, but he also became the scapegoat, sent to his death because of the sins of his neighbors.
That the community was at least partially responsible for the sin of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit is further evidenced by the juxtaposition of this story to the upcoming portions of the Torah that describe our responsibility to help integrate the lonely and downtrodden. The Torah emphasizes our obligation to take care of the impoverished, the stranger, the widow and the orphan.
The Ben-Isha Yisraelit is the paradigmatic outsider. He is someone who does not fit in, someone out of sync with societal expectations, a newcomer who cannot find his place in the community. The genesis of the Big Bang Theory show and the biblical story of the Ben-Isha Yisraelit remind us that in our society, ancient and modern, it’s often hard to connect and find a way to fit in and become “accepted”. Sometimes it’s because we are newcomers to a country or community, school or house of worship. And sometimes we may already be settled in and yet are still having trouble finding kindred spirits who accept us for who we are without judging our background, parentage, skin color, sexual preference, gender, religion, or interests. I would reasonably guess that many, if not all of us, in this sanctuary have experienced this feeling of disenfranchisement at some point or another in our lives. It’s never a good feeling to be an outlier to a group or a community. But sometimes all it takes is one person, or a small group of people, to help break down those barriers and obstacles to connection. And remembering that we’ve experienced moments like these may be just the push we need to keep an eye open for others who may be struggling on the periphery.
In a synagogue or church community, or in a school setting, a sense of belonging should mean more than just pitching your tent like the Ben-Isha Yisraelit attempted to do on the land of the tribe of Dan, saying you want to be a part of the community; it should mean that people INVITE you to pitch your tent and even lift up the flap periodically to check on you and see how you’re doing. Perhaps had the Israelite community embraced the Ben-Isha Yisraelit, rather than pushed him away, he would not have felt compelled to blaspheme God’s name. How would this man have felt here in Shearith Israel, or in the houses of faith of others present here today, or in the schools of our students here in the room? It’s a question that merits serious reflection. Do we treat these various settings as our home, and anyone in it as our personal guest? While we’re in these settings, who are we talking to, and who AREN’T we talking to? Who are we stopping to greet in the hall, or sitting next to in services or at kiddush lunch or in a cafeteria at school, and who are we passing by and ignoring? Are each one of us taking a share of the responsibility for making OUR communities—faith or school—more inviting, or are we leaving that job for someone else? Our actions and inactions, kind words or harsh ones, truly do make an impact on others whether we realize it or not.
Can we step up to our responsibilities to be pleasant, friendly, inviting, and concerned, to do our part to help more people in our respective faith and school communities feel like insiders instead of outsiders? Individuals’ feeling of belonging and sense of self-worth, and the vibrancy and even the very essence of these types of communities and our society is what’s at stake.
A 19th century Rabbi, Naftali Zvi Yehuda of Berlin (the Netziv), once taught that each individual has immeasurable potential and excluding the outsider or the outlier means the world may miss out on untapped greatness. He wrote, “Never underestimate the human potential of the stranger. Never forget that he or she could also be destined for greatness and, hence, never be responsible for the suppression of another’s potential. Rather, open your heart to the stranger in love so that you can enable him to flourish and realize his potential.” Maybe that’s why Sheldon and Amy won the Nobel Prize in Thursday night’s Big Bang Theory finale (oh shoot, that was a spoiler): they reached their maximum potential because they were surrounded by a group of friends and surrogate family who embraced them for all of their quirks and loved and supported them all the same. It’s all any of us can ever ask for from others, and something we can give freely in return if we only choose to.
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share