But if a person should act highhandedly, whether he is a native born or a proselyte, he is blaspheming the Lord, and that soul shall be cut off from among its people. For he has scorned the word of the Lord and violated His commandment; that soul shall be utterly cut off for its iniquity is upon it. When the children of Israel were in the desert, they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood presented him before Moses and Aaron and before the entire congregation. They put him under guard, since it was not specified what was to be done to him. The Lord said to Moses, The man shall be put to death; the entire congregation shall pelt him with stones outside the camp. So the entire congregation took him outside the camp, and they pelted him to death with stones, as the Lord had commanded Moses.Numbers 15:30-36
This week’s parsha contains a brief but particularly important story in the Torah about a man that is found gathering sticks on Shabbat. The story also illustrates the importance of juxtaposition in Torah.
Immediately before the story of the gathering of sticks on Shabbat, Hashem warns us of the consequences of “high-handed” sin. This is sin that is intentional and flagrant; sin that is meant to taunt Hashem. It is sin done to show the meaninglessness of Hashem’s mitzvot, and to promote the neglect, or outright violation, of mitzvot in others.
The penalty for this “high-handed” sin is to be cut off (the word is doubled for emphasis) from the people. What does it mean to be cut off from the people? The conclusion of the story of the gathering of sticks on Shabbat gives us the answer: Being utterly cut off from the people means being put to death.
Rashi alludes to the idea that the gathering of sticks incident provides an example of “high-handed” sin, and therefore the stick gatherer must have been warned to stop, but he continued gathering anyway. That would make this sin “high-handed.” The gathering of sticks was not an inadvertent violation, it was not a misunderstanding, it was flagrant. Therefore, it was understood that this stick gatherer was to be cut off from the people.
Does being cut off from the people really mean death? Seriously? For violating Shabbat, death? Moshe Rabeinu brings the incident before Hashem, and Hashem confirms that the man is to be put to death. This is what being cut off from the people means.
This story gives us another interesting question. They found a man gathering sticks on Shabbat, why was this considered a problem? The children of Israel had received the commandment not to work on Shabbat, but nowhere in Torah prior to this is it said that gathering sticks constituted illegal work on Shabbat. How did the children of Israel know and understand that gathering sticks on Shabbat was a violation of Torah? Where did the concept come from? How was it that the idea was generally understood by the children of Israel prior to the incident of the gathering of sticks? The answer is that this is an example of the existence of Oral Law. It is the children of Israel’s responsibility to understand and interpret what constitutes work on Shabbat. The children of Israel decided that gathering sticks on Shabbat is work. This was known and understood among the children of Israel, and by the stick gatherer. This is yet another reason why the story of the stick gathering is juxtaposed with the commandment of “high-handed” sin. Israel’s interpretation of work on Shabbat includes gathering sticks, therefore, when Moshe Rabeinu brought the incident before Hashem, Hashem confirmed Israel’s interpretation and understanding of the Torah. Hashem gave Israel the task of interpreting the Torah for Israel, and Hashem confirmed Israel’s interpretation of the Torah.