Dvar Torah 3/17/18 Judy Snitzer
Its two weeks before Pesach, Today is rosh chodesh Nisan and I have come to understand that Pesach has a central role in our lives, its not just spring cleaning, matza and 4 cups of wine: its much more than that; It is about the creation of the Jewish people as a nation
This winter I attended a course in Israel taught by Ilana Fodiman-Silverman on the subject of Laws associated with the Exodus from Egypt. I’d like to review a few of these mitzvoth, many of which surprised me, I hadn’t realized were connected to the Exodus, but we will see today from the texts that in each case the mitzvah does have a direct association to the Exodus.
One of the first mitzvoth is והגדתה לבינך which the Rabbis understand as a requirement to tell this narrative to anyone around not just our children. Even as Natan Sharansky told it to himself when he was in prison. It needs to be told out loud on the 15th of Nissan as we are eating matzah because ”the heart is inspired by verbal expression.” And we know that eating special food will also help imprint this narrative in our memory. The mitzvah isn’t to read the Haggadah, its to tell the story!
I’d like to focus first on three mitzvot that still influence our lives thousands of years later; They are the commandments to keep Shabbat, second; to have just or honest scales and measures, and third to be considerate of the Ger, the stranger.
First of all Shabbat;
In Dvarim, Moshe is summarizing everything for the people before his death, He is leaving them to enter Israel on their own, and in the course of repeating the ten commandments Shabbat of course comes up
שמור את יום השבת ……rest of pasuk in hebrew
“6 days you will work and on the 7th you won’t ,not you nor your son nor daughter nor servants nor oxen nor donkeys nor the Gerim living with you so that your servants will rest as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt etc”
We are told we must remember that we were slaves in Egypt; perhaps the most important and valuable thing we gained was freedom in how we use our own time. Time is a limited resource, and even though we now control our own time we are given limits on how we use it by observing Shabbat. We must value and respect equally the time of our children, our animals and our servants. This is a lesson to be remembered weekly. Time and freedom from labor are to be valued, not only for ourselves, but for all in our community. There is no room for misunderstanding the intention as the text says למען ינוחו. In order that they should rest, Servants need a break as much as you do.
Second mitzvah I mentioned is the one concerning just or honest scales.. Vayikra 19;36 hebrew inserted here
“just balances, just weights, a just ephah and a just hin shall you have. I am the lord your Gd who brought you out of Egypt.
Really what do honest measuring tools have to do with the Exodus. And isn’t it enough to forbid stealing? Why the redundancy of a commandment to have just measures, and why so many different units of measurement?
The text surrounding the verse on measures in Vayikrah 19;35-37, reminds us “You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment, in measure, in weight, or in volume. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I the lord am your G who freed you from Egypt. You shall faithfully observe all my laws and all my rules I am the Lord.” G’s presence is emphasized, big brother is watching. It is known that people do tend to behave better if they think someone is watching.
The Talmud in its discussion says that even the possession of false measures is forbidden.
Rabbi Shimsohn Raphael Hirsh stated that whoever observes the mitzvah of measures is affirming the Exodus and whoever doesn’t observe this mitzvah is as if denying the Exodus.
The Talmud tells us that we have to be careful to make the weights out of metals that don’t rust easily.
This mitzvah is much more than not stealing, there is a sense in the way the commandment is stated that we are being watched and that even the intention of cheating people is something to avoid. I think the value this mitzvah is promoting is clear.
The third mitzvah is actually a group of mitzvot about how to treat the Ger, that is a person who is a stranger in some sense but is living in the midst of a Jewish community.
Exodus 22;20 You shall not oppress a Ger, you shall not wrong a stranger because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.
Exodus 23;9 A Ger you shouldn’t oppress because you know the soul of the Ger because you were slaves in Egypt.
Vayikra Leviticus 19;33-34 and when a Ger lives in your land do not mistreat him, that stranger is to be loved as yourself because you were strangers in Egypt. I am G.
Devarim 10;19 You shall love the Stranger for you were strangers in Egypt
This is only a fraction of the quotes involving Gerim;
Sefer Hachinuch talks about the positive side of these commandments, of loving ones neighbor and loving the stranger. These mitzvoth promote the development of traits of compassion. We are meant to know that we are being watched and that a person who transgresses against a Ger causing them embarrassment or financial loss is transgressing against many positive and negative commandments. Not only are we being watched but we remind ourselves regularly that we were Gerim so we can identify with them in the most human way possible, because we lived through that experience.
The concept of being an outsider is something we might overlook. But we are told to be considerate of the Ger because אתם ידעתם את נפש הגר, because we know the soul of the Ger. We are not told to remember that we were Gerim, using the word zachor but through empathy with a Ger. Because you know the soul of the Ger.
The kli yakar suggests that our experience in Egypt was a sort of sensitivity training so that in the future we would keep in mind the disadvantage the stranger is always feeling. The concept of Gerut is imprinted on our soul.
Our empathy is born from a shared experience. In Shmot 22;20 it saysYou shall not wrong a Ger nor oppress him because you were Gerim in Egypt. The words used were
לא תלחצנו. The only other place this particular verb is used is to describe the treatment we suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. By looking at our experience in Egypt we know that is what we shouldn’t do to Gerim. The verse in shmot chapter 3 v 9 recounts
“and now the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have seen the oppression הלחץ with which the Egyptians לחצים are oppressing them.
I want to briefly mention two more mitzvoth ;
Zchor et Amalek. The first time in Shmot G says to Moshe “write this down as a reminder that I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek.” We are told to remember and to wipe out the memory of Amalek so which is it? Do we remember them or do we wipe them out?
A few weeks ago we read parshat zachor and we are reminded that Amalek attacked the weak as we left Egypt. Dvarim 25;17-19
The quote ends telling us; So please once we are within our own boundaries, you know, when we are sitting in comfort on our own verandas, be on the lookout for those who attack the weak and be sure to strike back.
I think it’s a call to action. Not to allow ourselves to be so comfortable that inertia prevents our acting to protect the weak, which might even mean ourselves even if we may not perceive ourselves as weak.
The last mitzvah I’ll mention is the mitzvah of pidyon hamor, to redeem the first born of a donkey. I think the concept is to be grateful for our material possessions. Slaves don’t own possessions; even their children are the property of someone else. Realizing that even if we attain possessions through hard work we are also in debt to the society we live in. Just as we say a bracha before biting into an apple, pidyon hamor reminds us to show gratitude for all material advantages that we gain.
These diverse seeming mitzvoth, each of which the Torah connects to our Exodus from Egypt all focus on creating a just society and a functional nation. Pidyon hamor, Amalek, Shabbat, honest measures, respect and love for the Ger.
We are trying to create a nation of people who respect all members of our community, those who are more vulnerable and even those who seem powerful.
We need to respect everyone’s time. We need a society in which we can trust each other we need honest measures, doesn’t matter if they are metric or imperial or standard. In order to have an economy that functions we must have just scales.
We must empathize with the Ger. Because there will always be Gerim amongst us, and by respecting them we free them to be productive members of society allowing all of us to benefit. Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin, the Emek Davar, suggested looking in the mirror and whatever we value in ourselves that is what we should see in the Ger. The mitvot concerned with Gerim are belt and suspender mitzvoth, that is, there is a certain redundancy involved to better ensure that our love and empathy impact out behavior to not oppress or tease the Ger.
Nissan is our first month. The Exodus is our foundational story, We didn’t become a people until we were all there at Mt Sinai. We all said Naaseh ve nishmah. We tell the narrative of the Exodus as if we were there. It’s my personal story not something that happened thousands of years ago.
All of these mitzvoth concern issues that we currently struggle with. These mitzvoth and their association with the Exodus make them part of the narratives we will tell at our seders and in this way influence the kind of society we create together. Today is Rosh chodesh Nisan our first month. The beginning of our existence as a people.