I sympathized with the residents of Boston last week as they were told to remain in their homes with their doors locked. Living in Los Angeles in 1992, I too was subject to a curfew that spring. Not that the two situations were identical. While Boston residents had to stay indoors all day last Friday, the curfew imposed upon my neighborhood in West L.A. was only at night. What united the two situations were fear and isolation.
Our tradition has many examples of isolation. Our ancestor Jacob found himself alone on two occasions, both of which transformed his relationship with God in a profound way. In the first he had his famous dream with the ladder and the angels. In the second, he wrestled an angel and received the new name Israel. In both of these cases, I imagine that Jacob began in fear and then through the encounter transitioned to awe and gratitude.
David, in the days before he was established on the throne of Israel, was targeted by his father-in-law King Saul for death. He had to escape into the desert to avoid execution. The Psalms reflect how David confronted his fear with words of faith and assurance.
Each of these examples is one of physical isolation, when a person is removed from most or all of the people he knows. This week’s Torah portion, Emor, hints at something slightly different: a social isolation in which a person is within the community but still feels detached. Often social isolation leads to resentment. In Leviticus Chapter 24, a man who is half Israelite and half Egyptian gets into a fight with an Israelite man. In the course of the fight, he blasphemes God’s name. God decrees that he should be stoned. The Torah leaves out two important pieces of information – what the fight is about and why it is relevant that the blasphemer is half Israelite.
The great commentator Rashi fills in these blanks. We need to know that the blasphemer is half Israelite on his mother’s side, because the locations for encampment are assigned according to father’s house. Without an Israelite father, this man has nowhere to pitch his tent. He has appealed to Moses for redress and been denied. When he finally just picks a place, an argument ensues and he curses God’s name in frustration.
The blasphemer is already socially isolated. Finally a blatant injustice leads him to resentment and rash words for which he deserves the ultimate punishment.
As a Jewish community, there is a lot to learn from this turn of events in Parashat Emor. Sometimes in standing up for principle, we cause our own members to feel disconnected. This isn’t always bad. As a covenantal community we must at times draw boundaries to uphold our core values. But there are probably also times when we stand up for principle in a way that unnecessarily imposes social isolation. In a diverse, multi-faceted society it is no simple task for our institutions and our leaders to draw the lines that reinforce our values. Social isolation is a powerful force whose consequences cannot be predicted.
As the Torah portion shows, people who feel socially isolated sometimes act in a way that undermines the very values that we have striven to uphold. I believe that had Moses known the result of his decision, he would have found a way for the half Israelite man to find a place to pitch his tent. Neither the man nor the community benefited from the outcome.
Physical isolation leads to fear. Social isolation leads to resentment. Our challenge as Jews is to minimize both so as to maximize our connection to God.