In this week’s parasha we find the Israelites poised to enter the Promised Land. For forty years they have been wandering in the desert, dreaming, hoping, yearning for the place that will be their home, the place where they can bring to fruition all the dreams and hopes they have been carrying along with their belongings through the desert. I imagine during the difficult moments, they envisioned the land and the life they would enjoy once they reached their destination. I am sure it was idyllic, filled with visions of a beautiful and bountiful land, where they would live in harmony and peace. And then we come to this week’s parasha: 72 laws, rules and regulations for their time in the land. And they are not as we might imagine, dealing with the lofty, idyllic vision of a perfect community and society, instead they discuss the darker realities of living: what to do if someone is murdered, how to deal with a defiant son, protections which must be put in place to prevent injury to others, capital crimes and how to deal with the corpse of someone who has been put to death, adultery, kidnapping, divorce, none of the things one would imagine having to deal with in the Promised Land, the paradise to which they were headed.
But the Torah was not imagining the Promised Land would be a perfect society, a place where the ills of humanity would automatically be lifted. Rather, the Torah recognized the frailty of humanity and that the new home they were creating would still have problems, difficulties and challenges, and it offers guidance to help the people to cope with the problems, and to create the best, most caring and compassionate society they could. To strive for the ideal, even though there was a recognition that they would probably fall short. And then it turns to the enemies, the people we have fought as we made our way to our new homeland.
In our parasha we are told that we must not hate our enemies, we must not hate the Edomite “for he is your brother,” do not hate the Egyptians “because you were strangers in their land.” The people who were enslaved for hundreds of years, the very ones who suffered under the yoke of Egyptian tyranny are commanded: do not hate the Egyptians, remember that they offered you hospitality, they reached out to you. Do not dwell on the oppression, instead remember what brings you together, remember your common humanity. What a powerful message to give to the former slaves: “do not hate your oppressor,” not just for them but for you. A society and people with hate at its core cannot flourish. It will be eaten up from within. Interestingly we are not commanded to forget the slavery, in fact the opposite, over and again we are called upon to remember the slavery, but not to incite hatred, rather, to teach us empathy. That is why this passage in our parasha is so important, we are to remember not in order to hate, but rather to banish the oppressive behaviour, to reach out to those who are suffering, to become better people.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio