PARASHAT KI TETZEI: Slave morality or Divine morality?

There was a time when Egypt “hosted you at a time of dire need” (Rashi). We cannot forget this time, and therefore we are forbidden from despising the Egyptians.

By SHMUEL RABINOWITZ
September 13, 2019 12:23
3 minute read.
PARASHAT KI TETZEI: Slave morality or Divine morality?

‘YOU SHALL remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt: therefore, I command you to do this thing.’. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)


This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetzei, continues with the rules pertaining to war that we began reading in last week’s Shoftim, and then continues with a host of halachot (Jewish laws) from different categories: laws of state, laws pertaining to marriage, laws stemming from various historical events, laws “between man and God” and laws “between man and his fellow man.”

Among this array, we find a number of references to the story of the Jewish nation in Egypt. As far as we are concerned, the story of the Jewish nation in Egypt is a historical one, a foundational yet distant story. However, we must remember that this Torah portion is part of Moses’s speech, delivered 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, when the memories of Egypt were still vivid in his listeners’ minds.

What were the lessons the Torah deduced from the time in Egypt?

“You shall not pervert the judgment of a stranger or an orphan, and you shall not take a widow’s garment as security [for a loan]. You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord, your God, redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this thing. When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to take it; it shall be [left] for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow... You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt: therefore, I command you to do this thing” (Deuteronomy 24, 17-22).

The enslavement in Egypt becomes the source of a moral imperative. We, who were at the bottom of the societal fabric, demeaned and diminished, must remember those who are helpless and help them. We must make sure they get a fair trial, treat them justly, and even provide for them so they live under decent conditions.

These directions surprisingly remind us of the words of the famous 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who termed Jewish morality “slave morality” – a morality that stems from a society of slaves without rights. The result is compassion, kindness, mercy and solidarity. Nietzsche condemned “slave morality” and spoke of the superiority of “master morality,” which values pride and power – ideas that later served the Nazi movement as justification for the “superiority” of the German people.

WE CAN say that indeed, these commandments are based on the experiences of slavery in Egypt and are an example of “slave morality.” But in contrast to Nietzsche and his ideas, Judaism does not condemn this type of morality. On the contrary, the Jewish nation experienced slavery in Egypt in order for it to internalize and absorb the values of compassion and concern for others. Judaism and the Jewish nation have no reason to be ashamed of this morality, certainly not in the face of the cruel and inhumane consequences of “master morality”!

When we look at this week’s Torah portion, we discover another aspect that adds some complexity to this issue; what Moses said when he discussed the possibility of other nations converting to join the Jewish people: “You shall not despise an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land” (Deuteronomy 23, 8).

The Torah teaches us that the relationship with the Egyptian nation is complicated. The truth is, the Jewish nation was enslaved by the Egyptians for many years. But before that took place, the Egyptians hosted the family of Jacob our forefather, which grew and expanded until it became a nation. There was a time when Egypt “hosted you at a time of dire need” (Rashi). We cannot forget this time, and therefore we are forbidden from despising the Egyptians.

This law raises questions regarding the concept of “slave morality.” A morality based only on the need of slaves to defend themselves from their abusive masters would never be able to contain such a complex concept as this; one that demands that we be grateful to that nation of masters for treating us well in the distant past.

This is not a slave morality that grew out of social hardships. This is a Divine morality given to us in the Torah by Moses! It is a morality whose Divinity obligates us to recognize human reality, understand that values of morality are attained through experiences of slavery and humiliation, and along with this, demands that we remember the better days our ancestors had in Egypt. This is neither a “slave morality” nor a “master morality.” This is a Divine morality that teaches us, guides our path, and makes us proud!

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.


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