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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Emor - The Voice of the Mothers

Updated: Jul 12

In this week’s portion, we read about the only woman mentioned by name in the book of Leviticus, Shelomit bat Divri from the tribe of Dan. Her name, Shelomit, derives from the same Hebrew root as the words perfection or completeness. Her father’s name, Divri, from the root of speech. The name of her tribe, Dan, is related to the root that deals with judgment. 

Shelomit’s story is a tragic one. As related in chapter 24, verses 10-23, a fight breaks out between an Israelite and Shelomit’s son in the course of which the latter pronounces the unutterable name of God. He is arrested and made to wait until God’s sentence can be made clear to Moses. God instructs Moses that anyone who blasphemes, Israelite and non-Israelite alike, must be taken outside of the camp and then stoned to death by the entire community, the punishment prescribed by the Torah for only the most heinous crimes. Moses and the community heed God’s command and execute Shelomit’s son. 

On the surface, what is called in Torah study as the pshat - the simple meaning, the lesson seems abundantly clear. The Torah strives against worship of other gods in order to enshrine the holiness and supremacy of the God of Israel in myriad ways. This warning against the misuse of the divine name and ultimate punishment for the infraction by any person are meant to serve these purposes. 

The rabbinic tradition interpreted the story along these lines, seeking to explain why the son was capable of engaging in such a heinous crime. Shelomit, perhaps unsurprisingly if disappointingly, was their chosen source of blame. In Leviticus Rabbah, a compendium of midrash composed between the 5th and 7th century, the rabbis interpreted her name to teach that she was perfect and flawless and the name of her father to teach that she was talkative, overly so with men. Some rabbis used these two traits to assign to her licentious behavior. Rashi, working four centuries later and using the midrash as the basis for his work, takes this idea one step further, explaining that Shelomit is mentioned by name to distinguish her from all the other, virtuous women of Israel. She, according to Rashi, is a zonah - a harlot. 

The rabbis, in their zeal to prove the correctness and justice of the divinely given word of Torah, at times were all too prepared to overlook the human experience of the characters in the Torah. They are read as lessons, not as human actors. We saw this several portions back with the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Both Moses and later the rabbis easily came to grips with the divine punishment meted out. 

For me, this poses a dilemma. Does the Torah really only mention this one woman in the entirety of Leviticus because, as Rashi posits, she is a whore who should be remembered as such? As Professor Rabbi Wendy Zierler writes, “how crushing to think that the Torah takes the trouble to mention this mother’s name only to label her a whore!”

Shelomit was, in the narration of the Torah, simply a mother whose son committed a crime for which the penalty was death. She was powerless to stop it. We do not know if she tried to intervene with Moses, if she tried to recruit other mothers to her cause. Knowing the Jewish mothers that I do, I imagine she likely did. We also do not know whether she was forced to witness the execution or was allowed to stay behind in the camp. All we know is that she had a son. Then, by the verdict of God and at the hands of her people, she did not. 

Reading Shelomit’s story this year I cannot help but think of the mothers. Through Shelomit I replay in my mind the images and words of the mothers - hundreds, thousands of them - who have had their children senselessly, cruelly taken from them. Just today in Israel, a Jewish mother from Argentina had to fly across the world to lay to rest her child in Jerusalem who had volunteered to serve in the IDF and was killed in combat. Just like Shelomit, there are thousands of mothers that will have to carry for the rest of their days the unspeakable pain, the bottomless loss. And the list of bereaved mothers will, I fear, only grow longer in the near future. 

In honor of this week’s parasha and of Mother’s Day in the US this past Sunday, I want to pay tribute to Shelomit and to every mother that as a result of the fighting of the past seven months has had to do the unthinkable, to bury their own child. May there swiftly come a day when this list will cease to grow, when nations and peoples put the lives of their children first before perpetuation of conflict and grievance, when all mothers can sleep soundly at night knowing that no harm will come to their children.

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