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Freedom, Fairness, and Fellowship

08/20/2021 02:08:52 PM


    Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Ki Teitzei, which contains many reiterations of Levitical laws regarding sexual purity and marriage, familial obligations outside of the bedroom, commandments regarding the treatment of animals and slaves, and some laws regarding proper business practices. 

    Of the latter, I have previously considered the verses, “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger in one of the communities of your land. You must pay him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets, for he is needy and urgently depends on it; else he will cry to the LORD against you and you will incur guilt,” (Deuteronomy 24:14-15) to be connected to the commandments at the very end of the parasha (Deuteronomy 25:13-16) regarding honest weights and fair business dealings. However, this week, as we see an increased influx of refugees from Afghanistan needing protection in the U.S., I can’t help but read this verse more closely connected to other warnings and commandments in this parasha regarding proper treatment of strangers and the disadvantaged. 

    In chapter 23 of Deuteronomy, about halfway through this Torah portion, we read: “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the LORD, because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.” The peshat - the plain meaning - of this verse is that we shall not accept into the Israelite community people from these two neighboring nations (which we know was not followed anyway; Ruth was a Moabite and was allowed to marry into the Israelite nation and give birth to the grandfather of the mighty King David). But a derash that does not require a whole lot of leaps is that this verse is warning us against turning away refugees, or even against passively turning our backs to them. The Ammonites and the Moabites have been named as enemy nations because they did not offer our ancestors food and water when they passed by the border on their fleeing from slavery in Egypt. Unlike the Amalekites, these nations did not seek to actively wage war on the Israelites in the wilderness. They simply did not let them enter their lands, would not help them as they passed through, and though in the case of the Moabites there was the open hostility of the attempted curse of Balaam, there still was no bloodshed between the Israelites and the Moabites or Ammonites. It is violence enough to turn a blind eye to the huddled masses of refugees yearning to breathe free. 

    This parasha also, unsurprisingly, contains one of the many Biblical reminders to act justly toward the stranger, the widow, and the orphan: “You shall not pervert the judgement of the stranger, or the orphan” (Deuteronomy 24:17). Rashi reminds us that we have already been told to hold everyone accountable to the same laws, to not judge with a bias according to our interests. So, our favorite 11th century rabbi tells us this commandment bears repeating in order to make perverts the judgment of the poor transgress two negative commands. “Because it is easier to pervert the judgment of the defenseless poor than that of the rich,” Rashi states, “therefore Scripture lays down a prohibition regarding him a second time.” And Sforno, our favorite 15th century Italian rabbi, adds: “During strife; be particularly on guard not to be unfair to orphans or proselytes who may be reluctant to speak up on their own behalf so as not to ‘make waves.’ You should go out of your way to argue on their behalf so as to compensate for their feelings of insecurity in facing adversaries.” 

    I have no particular commentary on what’s happening in Afghanistan right now. I do believe that we have an obligation as Americans and as Jews to be welcoming to refugees, and right now in particular we have a sacred duty to offer food and water, freedom and justice to the Afghan people fleeing to our borders. Our Torah portion this week reaffirms this belief in three ways. We must learn from how our ancestors felt when Moabites and Ammonites were less than hospitable to weary travelers. We know from the lesson of the SS St. Louis that such behavior can have even more disastrous effects than that which the Israelites experienced in the wilderness. We must help newcomers to this country get on their own feet, with job security and fair wages; too often desparate people are exploited in the workplace and our Torah reminds us that it is exactly those in the most dire straits that truly need to be paid quickly and completely. And lastly, we must judge with open hearts and deep understanding of their plight, advocating on their behalf when the language barrier or the gratitude to just be alive inhibits the disenfranchised from seeking better justice. 

This Shabbat, may we open our doors to those who have been pushed out of theirs, and may we find peace and warmth in our welcoming communities. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.  


Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782