We are all equal: a concept ahead of its time

Parshat Ki Titze: “You shall not see the donkey of your brother or his ox which has fallen and take no notice; you must help him raise up.”

Torah 521 (photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
Torah 521
(photo credit: Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT)
The many commandments in this week’s portion of Ki Tetze continue the long list of obligations which marked the previous two portions. These are the laws which the Israelites must accept upon themselves before they enter the Land of Israel. I would therefore imagine that the “brother” mentioned by the verse cited above refers to any other Israelite, as our Rabbis have taught us, “all Israelites are co-signers for each other,” and are therefore responsible for each other.
It is therefore quite remarkable to find in the very next chapter of our portion, “You shall not hate the Edomite because he is your brother; you shall not hate the Egyptian because you were a stranger in his land” (23:8). Equally remarkable is a much more affirming command, “You shall love the stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19). The “mother of all these commandments” is to be found in the Book of Leviticus “...You shall love your neighbor like yourself; I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18). As Ibn Ezra notes, the concluding words of this verse, “I am the Lord,” seem misplaced; after all, loving one’s neighbor is a law between human and human, not between human and God. Hence, Ibn Ezra magnificently explains, the “neighbor” in this verse must refer to every human being, regardless of religion, nationality or color – with the only exception being someone who does not keep the Seven Laws of Morality. Every moral individual who is not destructive of another is created in the image of God, entitling him to be free, inviolate and subject.
The Hebrew word which will further clarify this proposition and explain the usage of the Hebrew ah or brother with reference to the Edomite is ahrayut which means responsibility. I heard it explained in the name of Rav Haim Vital that the root word within ahrayut is herut or freedom; it is our fundamental freedom as human beings under God which make us responsible to reach out to ah (the first two letters of our word) and to aher or “other,” the first three letters of our word. Indeed, ah becomes identified with aher once we understand that we are all siblings formed in the “womb” of the One God.
How far does this go? Our Torah portion commands us: You shall not turn over to his master a slave who has been rescued from his master by escaping to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in whatever place he will choose, in any one of your cities, wherever it is beneficial to him; you must not taunt him” (Deut. 23:17).
Remarkably, the Bible provides us with a definition of freedom – the inherent right of every human being created in the Image of God – which is far ahead of its time.
The most authoritative translation and interpretation of the Bible, Targum Onkelos, interprets “runaway slave” to apply to a gentile slave in the employ of a gentile owner. Rashi adds a second additional interpretation, but also accepts the interpretation of Onkelos.
Rashi, the classical biblical commentator who is our best “pipeline” to the views of the talmudic Sages, defines the term “freedom” (dror) appearing in the biblical imperative regarding the Jubilee year, “And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and you shall declare ‘freedom’ (dror) in the land for all of its inhabitants,” as follows: “Rabbi Yehuda says, what is the meaning of dror? A dweller (medayar) who may live wherever he wishes, without requiring the permission of a superior authority to determine where he may live” (Commentary to Lev. 25:10 citing BT Rosh Hashana 9b).
An important parallel is found in American legal history. The famous Plessy vs Ferguson Supreme Court decision in 1896 determined that segregation between white and black Americans, including forbidding blacks to dwell in white neighborhoods or from attending white schools, did not harm the freedom of the blacks as long as they received equal, albeit separate, conditions of dwelling and schooling. This decision was overturned in 1954 in the Brown vs Board of Education case, where Chief Justice Warren led a unanimous decision (9-0) declaring that “separate but equal is a denial of the equal protection of the law.” Imagine how the Torah, close to 4,000 years ago, was so far ahead of the American legal system, which only managed to right itself in accordance with biblical law in 1954.

The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.

Tags Equality