Maryland Blogger Alliance

Alliance FAQs

Latest MBA Posts

September 18, 2005

Weekend doings

We spent this shabbat and Sunday morning with two of our kids and several other couples in cabins at Cacapon State Park in West Virginia. This is an annual, sometimes semi-annual, event with many of the same families each year. Each family provides one meal for everyone; we do erev shabbat and shacharit the next morning; and usually we take a hike in the afternoon or a nature walk. Saturday evening after havdalah is game night.

Many years, I'm the most observant person in the group. (It's an odd feeling. On a normal shabbat, at our orthodox shul, I'm closer to being one of the least.) As a result, when we do our Cacapon weekends, I'm usually asked to pick a topic for Torah discussion. The past two visits, I've actually written something out to present. Last spring, I spoke about math and economics -- about how the laws of remission couldn't possibly work, unless people believed that God had ordained those rules, and in fact, the rabbis later made them all but irrelevant through a legal device called prosbul. This weekend, I discussed a single verse in the Torah reading, Deuteronomy 23:8, which directs the Israelites not to abhor the Edomite, because he is their brother, and not to abhor the Egyptian, because they were strangers (sojourners) in his land. Here's the d'var torah:

The parasha we read today – ki teitzei – is full of laws. In fact, according to the O.U., it contains 74 of the 613 mitzvot, 27 positive mitzvot and 47 negative mitzvot, for a total of 12% of all mitzvot.

I want to focus on one verse – Deuteronomy 23:8 – which contains Mitzvot 164 and 165, if you use the Rambam's list. Like a lot of biblical poetry, this verse sets up a parallelism. (I don't mean to say this is poetry, but it follows biblical poetic style.)

First, we are prohibited from abhoring an Edomite. Why? Because he is our kinsman. Edom is associated with Esau, who is Jacob's brother. (Later on, by the way, Edom was associated with Rome and Christianity.) So no matter what Edom has done to us, we must remember he is our brother.

Second, we are prohibited from abhoring an Egyptian. Why? Because you were a stranger – a ger – in his land. But what does that mean, really? The Ramban (Nachmanides) says that Egypt offered us sanctuary when there was famine in the land of Israel. This is consistent with the idea that ger means a sojourner, as Robert Alter translates the word.

So that's it, right? End of d'var torah? Not really. What struck me about this verse is that the parallelism seems off. Normally, when the Torah says "You were a stranger in the land of Egypt," it's recalling a time that was bad for us, not good, and exhorting us to be good. For example, Exodus 23:9 says, "You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Similarly, Exodus 22:20 says, "You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." And again, Leviticus 19:34 says, "The stranger living with you shall be like the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God."

If the Torah is telling us we should not abhor an Egyptian because we suffered in Egypt, we lose the parallelism of the verse. We should not abhor the Edomite because there is something good about him, and we should not abhor the Egyptian because there is something bad about him. But the word "ki" can be understood to mean not only "because" but also "although." At the beginning of "b'shalach" (Exodus 13:17) we're told that God did not lead the Israelites by the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. Ki karov hu. "Ki" almost certainly means "although" rather than "because." None of this solves the problem of parallelism, but it at least deals with the meaning of the verse.

What I want to suggest here is that we can learn something from both readings of this verse. What we learn from my reading of "ki" as "although" is that we are being instructed to treat the Egyptians fairly, even though they mistreated us. The lesson can be put this way: Don't hold a grudge. Don't stoop to the level of people who have acted out of their worst instincts. Show magnanimity.

But what of the other reading? What if "ki" really means "because"? Don't abhor the Egyptian because he treated you well. Why would anyone mistreat someone who had treated him well? Because the good deed was forgotten? Sure, but how about the possibility that it's because the good deed was remembered? The Israelites were sojourners in Egypt because there was famine in the land of Canaan. When they arrived, Pharaoh offered them the land of Goshen, which we're to understand was the prime location in all of Egypt. So why would that good deed cause the Israelites to abhor the Egyptians?

Here's my thought: When people are in dire need of help, they will often feel a sense of shame about their condition, especially if they've had a good life until that time. So when they receive charity – or, nowadays, handouts from the government – they have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they feel relief; on the other, they feel shame and embarrassment. And more important than that, they feel a little resentment toward the people who helped them.

This problem was one of the reasons for the Rambam's Eight Degrees of Charity, which ranks in order of desirability the different ways in which people can help the needy. In the bottom four levels, the giver and receiver know each other. The problem this creates is that, to quote Chabad's analysis, "even when the giving is done with utmost sensitivity and happiness to help, theirs is a relationship of superiority: the giver's ego is gratified, and the recipient feels shame and inferiority because of his dependency."

This is not an absolute rule, of course. I'm thinking of the gentile families who saved Jews during the Holocaust. I suspect it was extremely rare for the saved families to resent those who risked their lives to help them. But neither is this rule purely hypothetical. The Jews were disproportionately involved in fighting for civil rights for blacks in the decades leading to the big victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But it wasn't long after that that black anti-semitism became a major force within the black community. There were several reasons for this, but one of them was a resentment at the Jews for having helped. Some blacks thought that the Jews were taking too much credit for the victories. Some thought the Jews had an ulterior motive for helping. And there was similarly a resentment that I think grew out of the fact that the help from outsiders, especially the Jews, confronted blacks with the reality that they had not done it alone.

So, to sum up, I think there are two completely conflicting readings of the verse, and I'm really not sure which is correct. But in a way, it really doesn't matter. We can learn something from each of them.