|We no longer can identify who the biological decendants of the ancient Egyptians are and therefore the commandment in the 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)
In addition to enslaving the Jews for over two hundred years, the Egyptians threw Jewish male infants into the Nile. Then they refused to let the Jews leave despite being nearly devastated by plagues. How can we understand the commandment not to despise them? Rashi answers that they helped 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 acting altruistically. Surely, the Egyptians realized that if Joseph was talented enough to conceive and implement a national economic policy, thereby securing the future of the nation, it stands to reason that his father, siblings, and their extended family must also be highly competent. They calculated that Egypt would benefit greatly from having such a family join their ranks. The Torah also records Pharaoh’s excitement at having Joseph’s family watch over his livestock. Nonetheless, we are still left grappling with the idea that this cruel nation, who took us in for their own interests, deserves not be despised by us.
The obligation not to despise Egyptians instructs us in an important moral principle. Once a debt of gratitude is incurred, it is not terminated by a grievance – even one that’s justified. When 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 Egyptian nation, 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. If you have this attitude when arguing with someone with a history of doing beneficial things for you, you will respond differently because you will bear in mind the innumerable acts of kindness received from the friend, spouse, or parent, and you will understand that the obligation to remember these good deeds is not negated by a quarrel or by what provoked it.
What should a man do who despises his ex-wife and makes hurtful comments to her do? As difficult as it might be, 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 financial cuts might be mad at their judgement because she feels someone else should have been let go. During those moments of anger when she finds herself spewing off sharp words at management, she should realize that it was the very same company that hired her when she didn’t have a job. They gave her training and the opportunity to establish herself in their company. 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 benefits, you gained from a person, institution, you are heading toward a path of happiness of peace of mind. All it takes is the wiliness to take a moment to think, and a bit of honesty.
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 their benefits toward us. A storeowner should appreciate the customers who patronize the store, and at the same time the customers should appreciate that (s)he provides them with their needs—even though the store owner made a profit 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.” Good Shabbos
(Sources: Rashi, Deuteronomy 23:8; Berachos 63b; Gratitude by Rabbi Berish Ganz; Against Hate by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks) Ki Tetzei 5774)
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