Ki Teitse 5782 – Against Hate

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

(Adapted from a teaching by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.)

Ki Teitse contains more laws – 72 – than any other parsha in the Torah, One verse, however, stands out because it is so counter-intuitive:

“Do not despise an Edomite, because he is your brother. Do not despise the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” (Deut. 23:8)

These are very unexpected commands. Examining and understanding them will teach us an important lesson about our teachings.

As we know, Jews have been subjected to prejudice more and longer than any other nation on earth. Therefore, we should be doubly careful never to be guilty of it ourselves. We believe that God created everyone in Gd’s image. If we look down on other people because of their race, religion, etc, then we are demeaning Gd’s image and failing to respect human dignity.

If we think less of a person because of the color of their skin, we are repeating the sin of Aaron and Miriam when they spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married.” They looked down on Moses’ wife because she apparently had dark skin, making this one of the first recorded instances of color prejudice. For this sin, we read that Miriam was struck with leprosy.

Jews cannot complain that others have racist attitudes toward them if they hold racist attitudes toward others. “First correct yourself; then seek to correct others,” says the Talmud. Our Tanach contains negative descriptions of some other nations, but always and only because of their moral failures, never because of ethnicity or skin color.

Now to Moses’s two commands against hate, both of which are surprising. “Do not despise the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” This is perhaps unexpected because the Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, and then refused to let them go despite the plagues that were devastating the land. Aren’t these reasons to hate?

But the Egyptians had initially provided a refuge for the Israelites at a time of famine. They had honored Joseph when he was elevated as second-in-command to Pharaoh. The evils they committed against the Hebrews under “a new King who did not know of Joseph” were at the instigation of Pharaoh himself, not the people as a whole. Besides which, it was the daughter of that same Pharaoh who had rescued Moses and adopted him.

The wisdom of Moses’s command not to despise Egyptians is still relevant today. If the people had continued to hate their former oppressors, Moses would have taken, as the expression goes, the Israelites out of Egypt but would have failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites. They would have continued to be slaves, not physically but psychologically. They would be slaves to the past, held captive by the chains of resentment, unable to build the future. To be free, you have to let go of hate.

No less surprising is Moses’ insistence: “Do not despise an Edomite, because he is your brother.” Edom was, of course, the other name of Esau. There was a time when Esau hated Jacob and vowed to kill him. Additionally, before the twins were born, an oracle told Rebecca, “Two nations are in your womb, one people will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger.” (Gen. 25:23) Whatever these words mean, they seem to imply that there will be eternal conflict between the two brothers and their descendants.

Why then does Moses tell us not to despise Esau’s descendants?

The answer is simple. Esau may have hated Jacob, but it does not follow that Jacob should hate Esau. To answer hate with hate is to be dragged down to the level of your opponent. As Martin Luther King Jr, wrote, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

When Esau met Jacob for the last time, he kissed and embraced him “with a full heart.” Hate, especially between family members, is not necessarily eternal and inexorable. Always be ready, Moses seems to have implied, for reconciliation.

Moses’ two commands against hatred are testimony to his greatness as a leader. It is the easiest thing in the world to become a leader by mobilizing the forces of hate. That is what is done even today, often using the internet to communicate paranoia and incite acts of hatred and violence. As we know, Hitler used prejudice and demagoguery as a prelude to the worst-ever crime of humans against humanity.

The language of hate is capable of creating enmity between people of different faiths and ethnicities who have lived peaceably together for centuries. It has consistently been the most destructive force in history, and even knowledge of the Holocaust and other genocides has not put an end to it. Even in Europe. Even today. It is the unmistakable mark of toxic leadership.

Great leaders make people better, kinder, nobler than they would otherwise be. That was the achievement of Lincoln, Gandhi and others. The paradigm case was Moses, the man who had more lasting influence than any other leader in history.

He did it by teaching the Israelites not to hate. A good leader knows: Hate the sin but not the sinner. Do not forget the past but do not be held captive by it. Be willing to fight your enemies but never allow yourself to be defined by them or become like them. Learn to forgive. Acknowledge the evil people do, but stay focused on the good that is in our power to do. Only in this way do we raise the moral sights of humankind and help redeem the world we share.