The episode of the Israelite woman’s cursing son (Vayikra 24:10-23) seems to come out of nowhere. Linguistically, we are reminded of Amalek’s sudden approach – in both cases, the Torah tells us that the antagonist went out, without telling us from where he went out. Though several commentators suggest that this phrase just means that they set out upon the field of action, its usage in rather similar situations suggests more than that.
In a tie-in with a third story that comes out of nowhere, we are not told the name of the man that curses; only that his mother was an Israelite and that his father was an Egyptian. We eventually find out his mother’s name, Shlomit bat Divri – a strange name at that – but only after the event. Hence, we are reminded of the story of Zimri and Kozbi, the infamous pair summarily executed by Pinchas for trying to lead the Jewish people astray. There too, we only find out the name of the Jewish antagonist and his tribal affiliation after the fact. Until that time, both antagonists are described in general terms, only revealing their nationalities. In fact, the term, eesh Yisrael, is used to describe Zimri three times (twice in in 25:8 and once in 25:14), parallel to the mother of the curser who is described as eesha Yisraelit (Vayikra 24:10).
Finally there is a story so similar to ours that they are often confused. That story is found much later in Bemidbar (15:32-36). There we read about an anonymous violator of the Shabbat. Like our curser, he is brought to Moshe to get a decision on what should be done, which Moshe apparently doesn’t immediately know (the latter reminding us of what occurred with Zimri as well). In both cases, they are placed in some sort of jail called a mishmar. Once safely out of the way, the law is Divinely revealed and the violators executed.
If we look at these stories as a group, they all move in a similar direction: We read about a sudden destabilizing threat that the Jews were not prepared to handle. The action in each story moves quickly, something which gives us an actual feel of these situations. And this is the reason why names are not given until the end of the story – there is a need to rush through it, and names will only get in the way. Once the emergency is over, we can go back to such details.
In all of these situations, the most important thing is to act right away. That means improvisation and alacrity, so as to contain something that would otherwise inflict serious – perhaps even disfiguring – damage onto the psyche of the Jewish people. True, Moshe was able to go to God to ultimately find out what to do in some of these stories. But that is only because his deputies immediately took control of the situation, by quarantining the problematic individual.
The Torah is telling us something here: Though we may sometimes act too rashly, there are times when rash action is the only way to prevent a complete catastrophe.
Given the Torah’s focus on living an ideal, thought-out life of ethics and spirituality, it needs to make sure we don’t get carried away with thinking. It is clear from the Torah’s interest in real life that there is a time for action as well as a time for thought. But that is not enough. What these stories drive home is that sometimes there is no time whatsoever for “better” solutions.