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Parsha Re'eh

08/29/2019 06:57:06 PM


Many Pesukim in the Torah strongly emphasize the remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, an event that is so central to Jewish belief both because of the great revelations and explicit miracles from God and because it signifies the birth of our nationhood.  While these are clearly the dominant themes of the Exodus, it is evident that there is another, perhaps secondary but nonetheless important, central theme of Judaism that is a part of the Exodus.  In this week’s Parsha, we are taught the mitzvah of “Ha’anaka”- gifts to slaves upon their release, the archetype for the values of severance and parting gifts.  The Torah follows this by saying “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and that God redeemed you.  Therefore I am commanding you today to do this thing.”  In a different context, last week in Parshas Eikev and similarly in Parshas Mishpatim we are taught about the mitzvah to love and honor converts and strangers, and there as well, the Torah links this mandate to recalling our own personal experiences as strangers and outcasts in Egypt.  The Gemara notes a highlighted stress on the stranger in biblical law, to the extent that Rabbi Eliezer counted 36 places where the Torah warns against the wrongdoing of the ger!

There is no other culture or religion that parallels the Jewish values for social justice and tolerance of the “other.”  One cannot help but notice how Jews themselves, throughout their history, were strangers and fighters against imperialism and great controlling empires.  Starting from our founding father, Avraham begins his Jewish quest by leaving his natural homeland and the great Mesopotamian civilization to become a wandering stranger who we see feels a strong sense of danger when he is forced by famine to another empire, Egypt.  Yaacov and his family were also strangers of other lands, an identity that escalates when Dina wanders into the territory of Shechem and is abducted there.  We notice that when Yosef’s brothers came to “visit” him in Egypt and he invites them to dine, the Torah says they were served alone, separate from the Egyptians, because it was detestable for Egyptians to share a table with foreign Jews.  With the subsequent enslavement in Egypt that led to Redemption as the Jews left Egypt, Judaism was being built on the protest against empires and the vision of “leaving” such a context.  It is a protest against the justification of social hierarchy and absolute powers in the name of religion, as well as a protest against the subordination of the masses for the cause of the state.  The institution of kingship in Judaism walked this tightrope of valuing Jewish dislike of social hierarchy while balancing the role of the King, and as History shows, when the Kings stretched their power too far and veered from their “Jewish” roots, the results were never good.  (In a most extreme example, much of the splitting of the northern and southern tribes is rooted in Shlomo forcing his people to arduously work for him and his projects as well as heavily taxing them, practices which his son continued and were instrumental in heightening resentment)  Jewish belief as well is exceptional to other religions in its tolerance for others who are not Jewish.  Unlike Christianity and Islam whose core almost needs to denounce others who didn’t accept their creeds, Judaism allows gentiles to pray even in the Beis Hamikdash and believes in their connection to God and spirituality in their own right. 

The greatest protest of the Torah against powerful empires is the use of power against the powerless-the widows, orphans, and above all, the strangers among us.  This fight against xenophobia is combatted only by realizing that the stranger lives inside of us as well, by remembering our roots and the enslavement in Egypt.  How ironic is it to find the world accusing Israel of being imperialistically minded when everything about our religion and history is evident that we are the fighters against absolute powers.  We reflect upon Judaism enduring the passing of so many empires that are now obliterated from the face of the map, and we always marvel at our ability to somehow exist through it all.  Perhaps we should see God’s obvious love in protecting us as a fight against empires, the same value that is repeated 36 times in the Torah and that is inherent in our roots- the appreciation of others and against using power against the powerless.  Dislike of the unlike a most natural and human reaction, and as the Torah warns us from succumbing to those feelings of prejudice and hate, it turns to our memories to stir us from within to evoke the stranger inside us to compassionately relate to a different stranger besides us.     

Mon, March 4 2024 24 Adar I 5784