Now here’s an odd story in this week’s parasha, Emor, not that there aren’t a few odd stories in our Torah. One day, “There came out among the Israelites one whose mother was Israelite and whose father was Egyptian. And a fight broke out in the camp between that half-Israelite and a certain Israelite. The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the NAME in blasphemy and he was brought to Moses” (Lev. 24:10-11). The man’s mother was from the tribe of Dan, and he was placed in custody until God made a decision as to what to do with him.
Decision made, this is what they were told to do: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and let all who were within hearing [of him saying the NAME] lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him.” (Lev. 24:13)
Now, putting aside the issue of stoning for a moment, there are a few other interesting aspects to this story. This individual had violated a community standard in a significant way by pronouncing the NAME of God, one that only Moses had used. This person crossed a line, and greatly offended the people; since he had offended the entire community, his punishment needed to be communal as well.
There are several interpretations of the “let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head” line. Rashi (12th c France) said that by laying hands on him, they’re saying “Your blood is on your own head. We’re not to be punished for your death, since you brought it on yourself.” Bechor Shor (also 12th c France) said by laying hands on the blasphemer’s head, as one does with an offering of say, the goat that absolves the community’s sins, the members of the town absolve themselves from the sin of that one individual, making them innocent of taking part in a murder; he is indeed guilty, not they.
However, I believe there’s another way to look at this. Without saying that the community is responsible for the one who went too far, that wrongdoing on an individual’s part is somehow the entire community’s fault, I do think that when everyone must take part in both the conviction and execution of the, well…execution, the community must take notice. By laying hands on the condemned criminal, as individuals, they are taking responsibility for what’s about to happen. It’s not happening behind a door – just the opposite, this is supposed to take place in the presence of the entire community, all those who heard him and were affected by his behavior. This is not to be taken lightly, or ignored, or somehow missed.
We routinely experience individuals in our midst that go too far, stepping over the line of what society has laid out to be offensive behavior. We call it breaking the law. But at a certain point, when a particular crime is so often repeated, society must ask itself why. When too many corporations are caught “blaspheming” (ripping off customers or polluting water), we put laws in place to stop the behavior. Today, we moan and cry about the astounding level of gun violence in the country. Children are gunning down children, and have been for far too long. We have some laws about this, we arrest the offenders, try them in court, and with our metaphorical hands on their heads, we pass judgment.
I’m not writing in favor or communal death penalties here. I am, however, saying that the holes in the gun laws are big enough to shoot through. Literally. And those holes must be closed, shut up tight, so that the legal-blanket better protects the community, as it is supposed to.
Recently, the US Senate acted shamefully by voting down (and it wasn’t even voted down! There was a majority in favor. Apparently, it depends on what “majority” means ) closing those loopholes that would have offered protection. It wasn’t a great bill….I would much prefer that it go further in removing assault weapons and accessories from the community…but it sure was a start. By failing to pass the legislation, the Senate placed its communal hands on the wrong heads – the heads of those who gave such grave offense by their blasphemous behavior, saying as Rashi said, “You brought this on yourself. We are not to blame.” With great respect, Rashi, I disagree. The US Senate cannot absolve itself from the responsibility. The Senate is very much to blame, and will remain so until and unless they lay their hands on the heads of those shot down, to comfort and protect them, not the ones who supply the shooters. Surely those shooters have offended God by taking lives away, and they are indeed responsible for their actions. But the “camp” bears some responsibility in a larger sense, too.
Those of us in the community need to be aware of where our hands are being laid, and it shouldn’t be on the heads of the blasphemers’ partners, those who help keep the holes in the protective blanket wide open. No, our hands need to create that protection by keeping the blasphemers from bringing their poison into the community in the first place.