Rabbi Raanan Mallek: The Empathetic Imperative Warning Us about Our Relationship with the Other in Our Midst – Ki Titzeh

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Titzeh, there is a substantial connection between ensuring justice for the stranger (the Other), the orphan and the widow and our collective will to exploit our national memory so that we may be empathetic towards the oppressed members of our society.

You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn: Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment. (Deuteronomy 24: 17-18).

What does Torah mean when it says “do not subvert the rights”? It means do not deviate from the law when referring to the weak and oppressed in our society.

Deuteronomy 24:17-18 says, “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.”

Rashi comments on “You shall not pervert the judgment of a stranger or an orphan” and says, “And concerning a wealthy person, [meaning anyone, not necessarily poor], one has already been warned, “You shall not pervert justice” (Deut. 16:19). However, [Scripture] repeats this prohibition here in reference to the poor man to make one transgress two negative commandments for perverting the justice due a poor man. Since it is easier to pervert the judgment of a poor man than that of a rich man, Scripture] admonishes and then repeats the admonition.

Rashi explains that we learn from Deuteronomy 16 that it is a prohibition not to subvert the rights of the wealthy, however the repetition of the principle vis-à-vis the poor means we are violating two negative commandments. It is much easier to subvert the judgment of a Judge regarding the rights of poor people who have no defense than it is for the wealthy.

Why must we act in accordance with this moral principle? Because of the empathetic imperative: We must remember that we too were slaves in Egypt and that we were set free by God.

Rashi (24:18) goes further and says: I released you only with this condition — that you should observe my statutes even though there be monetary loss in the matter.

And that is basic condition upon which we were redeemed from slavery, that we observe the commandments that demand that we display mercy towards the weak in our society, even if to do so comes at a financial loss. Providing social and legal assistance even if that requires extra governmental expenditures, is a commandment. Bureaucracy should never be a greater obstacle for the poor than it is for the privileged. Why?

Nachmanides explains that the most sound explanation of the empathetic imperative, i.e. remembering that we were once slaves in Egypt, is to ensure that we diligently observe the prohibition against perverting justice concerning the Ger and the orphan.

Maimonides connects the command of remembering to the empathetic imperative. We must remember that because we were once slaves in Egypt we are obligated to guarantee justice for those in need who live in our midst. He explains in his treatment of the Exodus story that we are to clearly understand that the Lord hears the voices of the weak, the oppressed and takes their side in the struggle against oppressors!

This entire portion, with all of its laws and commandments (more than in any other portion in Torah) has one which stands out in particular: dignity is a right for all people because they are created in the divine image. This must never be forgotten as it is the key to redemption. The Baal Shem Tov explains it best when he says, “exile comes from forgetting and remembering is the secret of redemption.”

Shabbat Shalom

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