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?
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