[Note: We no longer can identify who the biological decedents of the ancient Egyptians are and therefore the commandment in this verse below no longer applies. Nonetheless, its underlying lessons are as applicable as ever.]
…Do not despise the Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.(Deuteronomy 23:8)
The Egyptians had enslaved Jews for hundreds of years in an usually cruel way and threw Jewish male infants into the Nile. Then they refused to let the Jews leave despite being nearly devastated by plagues. How is it that we are told not to despise such a cruel nation? Rashi answers that they were there for us in our time of need. Long before the Jews were enslaved, a regional famine sent the members of Jacob’s family in search of food; they were granted refuge in Egypt. Thus, the Jews are forever commanded not to do despise Egyptians-but this is difficult to understand; are we really required not to hate the nation that oppressed us so severely?
Furthermore, even though they were there for us in our time of need, we have reason to suspect that they were not acting altruistically. Surely, reasons the Talmud, the Egyptians expected that if Joseph was talented enough to implement and national economic policy that secured the future of the nation, it stands to reason that his father and siblings family must also have some of his amazing talents. They calculated that Egypt would benefit greatly from having such a family join their ranks. The Torah also records Pharaoh’s excitement of having Joseph’s family to watch over his livestock for him. Nonetheless, we are still left grappling with the idea that a cruel nation, who took us in for their own interests, deserves not be despised by us.
The fact that these obligations remain teaches an important moral principle. Once a debt of gratitude to someone is incurred, it is not terminated by a grievance – even a very justifiable one. Once the Egyptians received Jacob and his family as they did, from that day on an obligation to repay them was established. Clearly, The Almighty severely punished the Egyptians for what had transpired during the many years of slavery. He devastated the country and its people with the Ten Plagues, and drowned them in the Red Sea. There is no contradiction to G-d meting out punishment and our obligation to recognize something good done to us. We are not commanded to love or even like the Egyptians, but we are told not to despise them because that would mean that we would not be acknowledging something done on our behalf.
Almost all ongoing relationships between people entail exchanges of kindness. Marriage partners typically help each other on a daily basis for decades. The life-sustaining kindness of parents toward their children goes on for years. Yet, there are times when even partners in an excellent marriage are angry at each other or parents might react to a situation that infuriates one or more or their adult children. How people react during these challenging moments is a litmus test of their ability to be cognizant of the years of good bestowed upon them by their spouse or parent. Hurtful words spoken at such moments cannot be recalled, and can cause long lasting damage to the relationship.
At such moments, one would be well advised to remember the Torah’s Mitzvah not to hate an Egyptian. Because of what happened 3,700 years ago, we Jews are obligated, to this day, to act with gratitude toward the Egyptians – this despite the terrible things they did to us later. When this attitude is brought to mind when arguing with someone who has a history of doing things from which you benefit, you will respond differently by bearing in mind the innumerable acts of kindness received from the friend, the spouse, or the parent – and furthermore, that the obligation to remember these good deeds is not negated by a quarrel or by what provoked it. What should a man who despises his ex-wife and makes hurtful comments to her do? As difficult as it might be for him, he should realize the years of happiness they had together when they were dating and later in the early part of their marriage and how she bore their children and continues to raise them. A woman hired out of college who did well with her company who was let go due to cuts in the company might be mad at their judgement; she feels someone else should been laid off. During those moments of anger when she finds herself spewing off sharp words at management, she should realize that it was that same company that hired her when she didn’t have a job. They gave her training and a forum to establish herself in the business. They might have made a poor decision now but it doesn’t negate all the good she received from them over the years. This might not instantly dissipate the anger but it will be effective in making it less intense and of shorter duration, thereby causing far less harm. When you are real with yourself and acknowledge the benefit you gained from a person, institution, or even country, you are heading toward a path of happiness of peace of mind. All it takes is a bit of honesty.
As a practical matter, the Torah’s Mitzvah of remembering the Egyptian kindness to Yaakov (Jacob and his family) despite what they later did to us is not currently practiced because we cannot identify the biological descendants of the biblical Egyptians. However, in our daily interactions with our relatives, friends, and co-workers, there is an opportunity to remember the good received from them, despite other negative exchanges. This is a way of practicing the ethic that underlies this Mitzvah.
In our daily lives, we constantly receive benefits from others. These people may have personal, even selfish reasons for providing us with what we need, but the Torah still expects us to appreciate and remember every benefit we receive. For example, a storeowner should appreciate the customers who patronize his or her store, and at the same time the customers should appreciate that the store provides them with their needs. Such an attitude would lead them to mutually thank each other, regardless of the size of the purchase or the fact that the store owner made money on it. The same holds true for car mechanics, cashiers, shelf stockers, or Uber drivers.
Britain’s former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks points out that the wisdom of the command not to despise Egyptians still shines through today. “If the people continued to hate their erstwhile oppressors, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt but would have failed to take Egypt out of the Israelites. They would still 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. That is a difficult truth but a necessary one.
He did it by teaching the Israelites not to hate. 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.”
(Sources: Rashi’s commentary to Deuteronomy 23:8 ;Berachos 63b; Gratitude by Rabbi Berish Ganz; Covenant and Conversation: Ki Tetzei (5774) – Against Hate by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks)
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