Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Those Who Are Not Right

My younger brother is brilliant, intense and spiritual. He is a kind soul, always willing to do a favor. He is also mentally ill and has been for much of his life. It was not easy to grow up in the religious world with undiagnosed mental illness. In the yeshiva elementary school where he attended he was forever thought to be resistant to learning, disrespectful, and worst of all bad.
In the shule many people saw him as unusual and rejected him...distancing him from the community. He grew up feeling misunderstood and scorned, cast out, and rejected. He was a Jew without a home.

This weeks Parsha speaks of another Jew without a home and tells a tragic story. The story is of the blasphemer, one who cursed the Divine, and the consequences which saw him put to death by stoning. According to tradition (though nowhere found in the text) the man who blasphemed was a man rejected, scorned and alienated. He was born of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father (this is in the text) . According to Rashi he converted to Judaism (since before the Torah membership in the community of Israel was based on the father not the mother as is it now). He wanted to be a Jew. He also wanted to be a member of a tribe. He made effort to settle with the tribe of Dan, from whence his mother came. But they refused him permission arguing that since his father was Egyptian he had no business settling among their tribe.

If that were not enough, their are sources in the medrash that say members of the tribe of Dan ridiculed him. They were the ones who informed him that his father was not only not a Jew but in fact he was the one killed by Moshe for beating an Israelite. When he came to resolve his dispute with the tribe of Dan in the court of Moshe his claim to belong was rebuffed. He was left an outsider, no father, no community, no home, and not even the sympathy of the Jewish authorities.

My brother wanted so much to be accepted. He was not. In response he felt angry at the Jewish community of his birth and went seeking a religious community that would accept him, with his problems. Unlike the blasphemer, thankfully he did not curse the Divine. But tragically and in many ways understandably he did reject the faith whose members found him unacceptable.

And my brother is not alone. If one checks out the journey of Jewish drop-outs who have been attracted to many expressions of spirituality over the years, a spirituality not ours, one finds that so many have a similar story to tell. They so often talk of having been estranged or worse from the community of their birth and mostly for reasons invalid.

No one is questioning the correctness is of the blasphemers position. The Torah is clear. Tribal affiliation is based on the father. And surely my brothers behavior was at times inappropriate and needing correction. We cannot change the law to accommodate the would be drop-out.

But that is no excuse to tease, ridicule or reject s/he who comes with an honest yearning to belong. Halacha applies to situations, hesed applies to persons.Please understand, I am not excusing the blasphemer, not by any means. But his reprehensible behavior should not cause us to over-look the situation that fostered it. I mean would it have been so awful for the tribe of Dan to allow him to live with them? Would it have violated any Torah law had they dealt with him with kindness? And even if the court had to rule against this man, could it have shown compassion to his painful circumstances?

This is personal to me. In truth I searched every commentary I could find to see if anyone wrote in a reflective way about the hurts inflicted on the blasphemer and the achrayut of community to care for its marginalized. But I found only condemnation of the blasphemer.
No one saw fit to ask "why was he hurting so badly as to curse the Divine?"

So I am left alone to raise the issue. But I must. I have seen my brother suffer. And there are many like him. There are many a community who reject and cite halacha to sustain there attitude. But too often without compassion.

My favorite Hassidic story is one told of Rebbe Yisroel of Rizhin. He told of a young Hasid who had to promise his father-in-law, a mitnaged, that he would no longer visit his Rebbe as a condition of being supported by him. Well some time after his wedding the Hassid had terrible longings for his Rebbe and against the condition set by his father-in-law he went back to learn with the Rebbe.
On hearing this the father-in-law cut off the young hassid's stipend. He was left with no source of income. He became malnourished, and then sick, and soon enough, he died.

The Rizhiner said that when Mashiach comes the young Hassid will come with a complaint over his circumstances, that they had been entirely unfair. Mashiach will go to the father-in-law and ask him how could you have done this? And the father-in-law will say " I consulted the Rav and he told me what I did was right". And then Mashiach will go to the Rav and ask him how could you have done this. And the Rav will say " I consulted the shulchan aruch and it told me my decision was right". And then Mashiach will go and kiss the Hassid on his forehead and say " the father-in-law was right, and the Rav was right and the shulchan aruch was right. But I, I come for those who are not right".

Those who are not right need and in many ways deserve the compassion. Its a shame they may have to wait till Mashiach comes to receive it.

Shabbat Shalom!

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