Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Topic: Remembering Egypt
This week’s parashah is Ki Teitzei. It is entirely devoted to commandments that will define the life of the people when they enter the promised land.
Several of the commandments are linked to remembrance of the slavery in Egypt. These commandments generally concern social responsibility for the wellbeing of the most vulnerable; the community are reminded of their own suffering and told to learn from it in their response to those who are in need of help. The point is made very clearly earlier in the Torah (Exodus 23:9) when the people are told that they must not behave oppressively to strangers “ki atem yedatem et nefesh b’ger”, “ because you know the soul of the stranger” and you understand what such people are going through. Others who do not know may turn away but you have no excuse for indifference: a tragic history is also a source of moral obligation to work toward creating a better world and a more humane society.
The “ger”, the stranger, appears many times in the Torah, including in our parashah, as a symbolic example of social vulnerability. The word comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to live”; the “ger” is one who lives alongside us, but is not of our community. It also has an element of transience – the “ger” is not a permanent resident, unless described as a “ger vetoshav”, which is very different: it then refers to people and communities for whom the land of Israel is their home as it is for its Jewish inhabitants.
In later Judaism the term “ger” is used to describe someone who becomes Jewish but, contrary to common usage, it retains its intrinsic meaning and does not translate as a “convert’; it simply honours the choice a person has made to leave her own people and become a part of the community of Israel. In these circumstances to translate “ger” as “stranger” is particularly unfortunate and I am always somewhat ambivalent about it, because “stranger” implies distance and even caution, whereas in the biblical usage “ger” is a term of inclusion, with overtones of empathy, concern and responsibility. (It is reasonable to translate the word “nochri”, which is also used once in the parashah, as a more distant relationship – when Joseph “distances” himself from his brothers, the word used is “vayitnacher” – but “ger” is quite different.)
Creating an “inclusive” community across boundaries of faith and culture is easier said than done, but the Hebrew Bible insists upon it time and again. There is also a very sharp sense of boundaries, beyond which such “community” is not possible, but in the contemporary world these would be the exception rather than the norm.
Community in this sense begins with remembrance of our historic experience and our own times of vulnerability and hurt. We are then able to engage imaginatively with others, even if the circumstances are not the same, and to act positively in order to help them. Action is crucial, thus the entire content of the parashah is devoted to behaviour in practice and our response to concrete situations. It is also important to note that commandments are addressed to every individual and not confined to government, the state or religious leaders. Small acts of kindness are intrinsically precious and gradually create a culture of compassion that becomes the norm for all of us. Laws are creative instruments that enable the building of a good society and help us become better people.
Chapter 2 of the Book of Ruth illustrates beautifully and touchingly the tensions and possibilities of communal relations. Ruth has accompanied her mother-in-law, Naomi, from her native Moab to Judea. Ruth is seen as simply “a Moabitess” and she is immediately aware of the need to behave with great caution. When Boaz is kind to her, she responds with a mixture of gratitude and disbelief: “Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, ‘Why have I found favour in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?’” (Note that the word for “foreigner” is “nochria”, not “gioret”.) Ruth was familiar with the categorisation and exclusion that was the fate of a stranger in a closely-knit society. Boaz engaged with her as a person whose life he appreciated and admired: this is the world of inclusive community that is advocated by the Hebrew Bible.
The imperative to remember Egypt is mentioned in the parashah (Deut 2:17) in connection with justice for the stranger and the orphan and taking a widow’s garment for a pledge. If justice is withheld from the vulnerable and they are deprived of their legal rights, then clearly the courts have been co-opted by the powerful and the gates are open for all manner of oppressive relationships.
The widow’s garment is slightly different. If a debtor has failed to repay, then the letter of the law would permit the creditor to take whatever was agreed upon as security for the loan, as otherwise he will lose what is rightfully his. If this system breaks down, then people will be reluctant to make loans in the future. Torah law intervenes on the side of the widow and tells the creditor that he – or she – must bear the loss. The creditor has a right to his money, but no right at all to reduce the widow to penury: she has been redeemed from Egypt and is entitled to her freedom and her dignity.
The good society depends on how we conduct the small transactions of everyday life: the world of loans and pledges and the gleanings of the field. It is the difference between going into a neighbour’s house to collect what is owing to you and waiting at the door for them to bring it out. It is the difference between keeping your neighbour’s cloak as you are entitled to do, or returning it every day as sunset “so that your neighbour may sleep in the cloak and bless you” (24:10). It is the difference between watching your neighbour’s animals stray and ignoring them, and fetching them back and looking after them until your neighbour returns (22:1).
Carolyn Sharp summarises briefly Walter Brueggemann’s description of the significance of the Exodus from Egypt: “What is exodus for Brueggemann? Daring to leave behind the numerous kinds of slavery that diminish who we are, that impoverish our spiritual imagination, that dehumanise others and that fracture true and godly community …. The texts of the Hebrew Bible call us continually out of servitude – including complacency about the chains we have forged ourselves – and they call us forth into a world of justice and grace.” That is a reasonable summary of the social laws of Parashat Ki Teitzei.