Torah Tuesdays: On Not Causing Others to Stumble

April 30, 2014

Today’s Torah Tuesday lesson is from this week’s Torah reading in Leviticus 24. It has a lesson for all of us that will make us aware not simply of our own problems, but of the problems we create for others–problems in their relationship with God.

10 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. 11 The son of the Israelite woman pronounced the Name in blasphemy, and he was brought to Moses — now his mother’s name was Shelomith daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan — 12 and he was placed in custody, until the decision of the Lord should be made clear to them.13 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 14 Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him. 15 And to the Israelite people speak thus: Anyone who blasphemes his God shall bear his guilt; 16 if he also pronounces the name Lord, he shall be put to death. The whole community shall stone him; stranger or citizen, if he has thus pronounced the Name, he shall be put to death .  . . 23 Moses spoke thus to the Israelites. And they took the blasphemer outside the camp and pelted him with stones. The Israelites did as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Most of us don’t like this story. It is one of those Bible stories that embarrasses us. It is one of those stories people use to denounce the Bible and to ridicule our faith. Chances are, most of us here don’t know what to do with a story like this.

I think the best thing we could do with this story is learn from it. The story has a lot to teach us. Let’s look at it. And the details are important

  • It’s a story about two men, one an Israelite, and the other, the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man. These two get into a fight, and in the midst of the fight, the son of the Israelite woman blasphemes the name of God.
  •  Why do we need to know that the blasphemer is the son of an Egyptian man and an Israelite woman? Perhaps the Torah is just being racist here—saying, “This guy who blasphemed, he was half-goy! Just goes to show you what you can expect of goyim.” But I think not. We must think more deeply here.
  • Notice, the passage is both long on details and short on details. We know the name of the blasphemer’s mother, but no one else’s name. Perhaps she is named in order to establish that indeed he was a Jew, and therefore subject to the prohibition against blasphemy. But these laws pertained not only to the Israelite but also to the stranger who lived with the community . . . . Hmmm.
  •  Notice another detail: it is not just that the man blasphemes. We are also told the context in which he blasphemed . . . it was during a fight between a full blood Israelite man and this unnamed guy who had an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father.

So now we see Torah giving us these significant details:

1. Two men were fighting;

2. One was Israelite on both sides, mother and father, the other, the son of Shelomit daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan, who had an Egyptian father;

3. During the fight, the son of Shelomit blasphemed—poked holes in—used lightly and illegitimately—the Holy Name of God;

4. Because it is not important for us to know it, we do not know the names of either man.

What then, were these two men fighting about? Make a holy guess.

Hoet_The_Blasphemer_StonedMy guess is that they were fighting over the lineage of Shelomit’s son, or perhaps over the virtue of his mother. Perhaps the other guy insulted Shelomit to her son saying something like this: “Hah! Your mother must have been really hot in the pants to sleep with that dumb Egyptian!” Or perhaps, because this entire context in Leviticus is about holiness, and preserving holiness, the nameless guy insulted Shelomit’s son by saying that he and his family were less holy than his own family because of Shelomit’s Egyptian husband. Whatever the case, it seems clear to me at least that it is likely that the fight was over some insult to the family of Shelomit—either she herself (Why else is she named?), her husband the Egyptian, and certainly her son.

And this son loses it and perhaps to return the insult to the fellow he is fighting with, blasphemes the name of Israel’s God. And for this he forfeits his life.

The Cost of Provoking Others

The issue I want to focus on is provocation. Aren’t there ways, even subtle ways, in which we too provoke people to go outside of God’s boundaries? Do we taunt people? Do we test them? Do we tempt them in various ways? Do we push them beyond proper boundaries? Do we illegitimately get people bent out of shape so that they are tempted to go outside of God’s holy boundaries? We certainly do. And when we do, they pay a price. And God holds us accountable.

Judaism has much to say about this, more than we can cover in this posting. Let’s focus on one aspect, courtesy of a fine article by Dr. Hershey Friedman of the School of Business at Brooklyn College. In his article “Placing a Stumbling Block Before the Blind Person: An In-Depth Analysis” he expands upon this principle for us, the principle of not being the cause of someone else stumbling. The principle is called lifnei iver -before the blind, meaning placing a stumbling block of some kind in the path of someone who is unaware of what he/she is getting into:

UnknownThe above verse [Leviticus 19:14,"You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD"], is considered to be a prohibition against helping or causing another to sin. Thus, placing any kind of prohibited temptation in front of someone would not be allowed. For example, providing an individual with a prohibited food, e.g., wine to a Nazirite (who takes a vow which prohibits him from drinking wine, cutting hair, or ritually contaminating himself by coming into contact with the dead), would be a violation of this commandment (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 22b). Rabbi Ashi, who owned forests, was permitted to sell wood to heathens who were fire-worshippers only because the majority of purchased wood is used for kindling, not for idolatry (Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim 62b). However, to sell the wood directly for the purpose of allowing pagans to practice their idolatrous practices would be prohibited. Lending someone money without having any witnesses present is also a violation of lifnei iver since it might ultimately tempt the debtor to deny that he or she borrowed any money (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 75b). If one person lends another money with interest, the borrower and the lender have also violated lifnei iver since each one enables the other to commit the sin of usury (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 75b). The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Moed Katan 17a) also prohibits one from hitting an older son because of lifnei iver. An older son might angrily retaliate and strike his father, which is a very serious sin.

The Apostle Paul evokes the same principle more than once in his letters, in regard to people restraining themselves in exercising freedom to eat what they choose: ”Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13), and this passage which three times evokes this rule of not causing someone else to sin. This pertains to eating food once offered to idols:

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.(Romans 14:13-21 ESV)

In Luke 17, Yeshua himself had some hard words for people who cause others to stumble, words we need to hear.

 Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin.

So let’s be careful out there, not simply about our own sins, but about provoking others to sin. Pay attention to how your life affects others: better you should inspire them to holiness, then trip them up into misbehavior.


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