So few women are named in Torah, that I really hoped to unearth something inspirational about Shlomit bat Dibri. I did, eventually, but it wasn’t easy.
There’s only one piece of narrative in this week’s portion. The scene opens with an unnamed man, “the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man” who goes out into the Israelite camp and gets into a fight with an Israelite. (Leviticus 24:10). He blasphemes by uttering God’s name and is brought to Moses for judgement. It is as this point that we’re told that he is the son of Shlomit bat Dibri from the tribe of Dan. Then he is taken into custody until God informs Moses of his punishment, death by stoning, and he’s put to death.
Our man is an outsider. He comes out at the start of the story (10). God instructs Moses to take him out of the camp (14). Finally he is indeed taken out and put to death (22).
He starts and finishes outside the camp despite all his efforts to find a way into it. In later rabbinic law, he would be considered Jewish, but in the Torah, his status is doubtful.
The midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 32:4) furnishes some additional detail. It says that the man pitched his tent with the tribe of Dan, his mother’s clan, but they wouldn’t have him. After the Danites rejection, the man went to Moses hoping for support, but Moses upheld their exclusion of him. Furious, he blasphemed, resulting in his imprisonment (bitter irony, he’s finally inside!), and his ultimate exclusion, stoned to death outside of the camp.
The midrash explains that the man was the son of an Egyptian slave master who Moses killed when he saw him oppressing an Israelite slave (Exodus 2:12). The man’s mother, Shlomit, was too free with her greetings, saying “shalom” to everyone she met. Her friendliness brought her to the attention of an Egyptian slave master (her husband’s overseer) who, finding her attractive, came to her home when her husband was out working, and raped her. Then he went back to overseeing slaves, showing especial cruelty to Shlomit’s cuckolded husband. The resulting child was our unfortunate man. Not only did this man’s Egyptian father (his mother’s rapist and father’s tormentor) die at Moses’ hands, but in the end so does he!
It’s hard to find much comfort in this story with its bullying, xenophobia, misogyny, and victim blaming. And then, to add insult to injury, the Torah uses this story to insist that the law be equally applied to both strangers and citizens (16) and to state the law of talion (20)(“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”), supposedly a tenet of a progressive and fair legal system.
When we read these laws in the context of the story we’ve just been told, it’s clear that applying the law equally doesn’t always result in justice. A person who starts out marginalized or excluded is already at a disadvantage. Applying the law “equally” might only serve to alienate and penalize them further.
The Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 32:7) then brings another, obliquely related, story. When Rav Zera moved from Babylon to Israel he began to hear voices telling him when someone he met was a bastard (that is, the product of an illicit sexual relationship). Their sheer number perplexed him because he had learned from his teachers that a bastard does not live longer than 30 days. The 4th century sage, Rabbi Berachya, who also lived in Israel, knew that a certain Babylonian Jew was a bastard (perhaps he had moved to Israel in order to shake off his shameful status?) This man came begging, and Rabbi Berachya invited him to return to the House of Study the next day where he would take up a collection for him. The next day, after he finished teaching Rabbi Berachya announced to his students that they should give generously to “this man who is a bastard”. Humiliated, the man asked Rabbi Berachya why he had exposed him. Rabbi Berachya explained that annonymous bastards live no longer than 30 days, but those who are publically known live on, so he had in fact not shamed the man but had rather given him life!
Inherited shame is pernicious. Carrying ancestral shame – like our man in Leviticus 24 – is miserable, alienating, and can result in social and even actual death. Concealing ancestral shame – like the bastard of Leviticus Rabbah – is not much better because of the constant fear of exposure. People struggling under either are unfairly burdened. True, exposing them is initially shaming, but it’s also the only way to break the grip of ancestral shame. Exposing it forces others to recognize that not everyone has the same opportunities, that there isn’t a level playing field, and that some are contending with more than others.
And what about Shlomit bat Dibri? Have we succeeded in rehabilitating the woman our rabbis named and shamed for her warmth and concern, the woman who supposedly brought about her own rape, and her husband and son’s suffering?
The law is may be clear cut, but real life is messy, and there isn’t always a clear line between perpetrator and victim. “Shlomit” suggests wholeness and unity. And “Dibri” refers to speech. Maybe the key to reading this sad story is to employ the tools alluded to. Shlomit reminds us not to throw the law book at people, but rather to open a conversation with them about their circumstances and motivations.
Student rabbi Zahavit Shalev
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.