Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
In Ki Tetze, Torah speaks with more than one voice.
This week’s parasha, among other things, defines who (besides the Israelites) can be admitted to the congregation of Israel, and who may not. According to Rabbi Adam Greenwald, it contains the hardest commandment of all:
“You must not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in their land.” [Deut. 23:8]
Didn’t the Egyptians enslave us with bitter labor for centuries? Didn’t pharaoh commit the very first holocaust by ordering all male Jewish babies to be drowned in the Nile?
The Exodus from oppression and slavery in Egypt to freedom and the Promised Land is our primary definitive narrative. It takes four of the five books of Moses to properly tell this story. Our holiday cycle revolves around the retelling the pain of enslavement and the highs and lows of the journey. Our prayerbooks enshrine our redemption as specifically being from Egypt, through prayers like the Mi Kamocha. How could the Egyptians not be our nemesis?
Rabbi Greenwald writes:
“The Egyptians are among the Torah’s greatest villains; and yet, we are ordered not to hate our former tormentors. It is hard to imagine a commandment more challenging to keep that this one – for us, and how much the more so for the former slaves, and their children and grandchildren, who first heard Moses’ stern decree at the edge of the Promised Land.”
Yet, the commandment stands.
The rabbis teach that with this commandment, Moses emphasized the importance of not giving into our baser human tendencies. Torah teaches that we should not return hate for hate, for that path leads to an endless and brutal cycle. Instead, as Rashi teaches, we are to remember that while the Egyptians did oppress us, and even attempted genocide, that they also took us in when we were in need (see the Joseph and Jacob story, and also the Abraham story). It is worth noting that we are not commanded to love the Egyptians, but we are commanded to let go of our hate. Therefore, according to Torah, Egyptian children of the third generation or later from those who oppressed us can be admitted into the people of Israel.
Why then, does Torah also command that, under no circumstances may the descendants of the Ammonites or the Moabites ever be admitted, not even to the tenth generation? [Deut. 23:4-7] Unlike the Egyptians, they were our distant relatives. Their great sin was that they blocked our way from Egypt to the Promised Land, and their King, Balak, hired Bilaam the prophet to curse us.
To be honest, I cannot find a way to reconcile the commandments to hate the Moabites, but not to hate the Egyptians – at least not without stretching my logic to the breaking point. Yet, while the Torah itself contains these contradictory statements, the Book of Ruth offers another perspective: many generations after the settlement of the land, an Israelite family escapes famine and moves to Moab, where Ruth and Orpah, both Moabite women, marry into the family. Even more, after tragedy strikes and all of the men of the family die, Ruth determines to return back to Israel with her mother-in-law, knowing that she might not be welcome there. In Israel, she finds a new husband, and her great grandson would one day become David, King of Israel.
Does the story of Ruth negate the commandment from Deuteronomy? No, but it provides some wiggle room. In these two Biblical texts we encounter the tension between those who would exclude certain groups for the sake of the larger community, and those who believe that it is only through their inclusion that we become stronger and better as a community. The debate continues to this day. Religion has the greatest capacity of any human institution for creating communities of belonging, and also for creating deep barriers of separation between us.
Which approach do you choose?
Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
The opening words of this week’s parasha call to us at this time of year:
“Shoftim v’shotrim titein lecha, Judges and overseers you shall set for yourself …” [Deut. 16:18]
In context, the commandment has to do with setting up a fair and just judicial system – a necessary step in building the kind of just community Torah envisions. However, because Hebrew is designed to function on multiple levels of meaning at the same time, there is always more than first meets the eye.
Let’s start with the timing of this portion. Shoftim is always read towards the beginning of the month of Elul – as we begin to prepare for the High Holy Days. This is the time when we are supposed to measure our deeds and right our wrongs so that the New Year will be better than the last. The rabbis use the imagery of a great heavenly book, in which all of our actions are recorded. Through our choices and action, we control what is inscribed, and at this time of year, we have the chance to “edit” the text through the process of teshuvah, of making amends and changing our behavior.
Rabbi Cheryl Peretz focuses on the Hebrew word “lecha” to connect this verse to the beginning of Elul. She notes that the use of “lecha” here is disjointed because it means “you” in the singular rather than plural. How can I, as an individual private citizen, appoint judges and overseers? Perhaps the text means that each and every one of us is responsible for participating in the selection. This fits in as part of a larger pattern of pre-democratic reforms introduced by Torah. However, Rabbi Peretz turns our attention to the eighteenth-century Hasidic commentary Toldot Yaakov Yosef (who was a student of the Baal Shem Tov), eloquently paraphrasing his teaching:
“L’cha, he says, is intended to say: for you, for yourself. As if to say, you should appoint judges within yourself. Every person has the obligation to sit in judgement of him/herself and his/her own actions.”
We judge all of the time. For some of us, it is easier to judge others than ourselves; and some of us hold ourselves to a higher standard and only judge ourselves harshly. The Toldot Yaakov Yosef instructs us to judge ourselves first, and then to use the same yardstick when we judge others. It teaches us to find balance and seek the truth of self-honesty. It urges us to create a fair and just internal justice system.
This is the spiritual work of the month of Elul and the High Holy Days.
Yet there is one more clue from the Hebrew to help us during this holy time. The commandment is to set both judges and overseers for ourselves. The Hebrew word “shotrim” is the same word used in the book of Exodus to describe the overseers or foremen over the slave population. Biblical Scholar Robert Alter notes that it derives its meaning from the root meaning “to write down.” So “shotrim” could refer to the biblical equivalent of courtroom stenographers. However, I’d like to think that this is just another subtle reminder to us that as we each begin our journeys of teshuvah we must not only judge ourselves, but also act in ways that record our deeds in the Book of Life for a good, sweet, and Happy New Year.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras