A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Ki Tetzei 5765
September 17, 2005 13 Elul 5765
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS
Hurricane Katrina united our country in common empathy and purpose. The outpouring of support, monetary and otherwise, has been greater than most of us could have hoped for or imagined. But was it really so surprising? The Torah suggests that our national response was correct but would not have expected any less.
Out of the seventy-four mitzvot in this week's parashah, a handful relate to the treatment of the poor or disenfranchised: the widow, the orphan, the hired day laborer, and the slave.
Toward the conclusion, we read, "You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow's garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; for this reason I enjoin you to keep this commandment" (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).
And while the injunction to remember the experience of Egypt is attached here to a particular set of mitzvot, it is repeated many times in Torah (for example, just a few verses later in 24:22) and can be applied to all the mitzvot that elicit compassion and justice for the poor and vulnerable of society.
It is easy to understand that the experience of being at the bottom of the social ladder should make us more sympathetic to others. The essence of slavery is losing your identity, being nameless, seen only for your labor potential, not for your human essence. Rashi goes a step further, however, in pointing out the connection between remembering the servitude of Egypt and observing the laws governing how to treat the needy. Rashi paraphrases, "For this very purpose did I (God) redeem you, in order that you observe my laws, even when it involves some financial loss to you." Indeed, we can see where Rashi derived his interpretation. By changing the punctuation of the verse (moving the semicolon three words ahead) we would read: "Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there for this reason; I enjoin you to keep this commandment."
Rashi's statement is breathtaking. Imagine if we lived every day with the consciousness that our every action should justify our having been redeemed from slavery. How would we choose to spend our time, our money, our energies?
Indeed, it was moving to see rich and poor, old and young, individuals and businesses, black and white, all mobilizing personal and community resources to rally to the aid of hurricane evacuees, many of whom had been on the fringes of society beforehand, all of whom feel so now. And yet there is no need to pat ourselves on the back or feel surprised by the human response. Our wish to help was precisely what the Torah ordered!
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz