You are not the intended audience of the entire Torah. I’m not only talking about the laws addressed to kings and high priests. Many of the commandments that we think are meant for all of us today are directed to a much more select group.
For example, let’s take a look at the commandment to have joy on the holidays. Most of us are familiar with the verse “You shall rejoice in your festival” (Deut. 16:14) from the popular song V’Samachta B’Chagecha. It describes the joy at the Sukkot holiday, the harvest festival. But a closer look at the subsequent words in the verse shows a deeper, and perhaps darker, context:
“You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.”
Who is the “you”? It’s not the slave, the Levite, the stranger or the orphans and widows. It’s not even your own children. The person being spoken to here is the landowner, who has reason to celebrate — he just benefited from a bountiful harvest.
We find a similar phrasing regarding Shabbat, in Exodus 20:10 — “You shall not do any work — you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.”
Again, when the Torah says “you” it is excluding other family members, slaves and strangers (the question of why wives are not mentioned here is an interesting one, but I believe that they are likely not included in the “you” as well).
Exclusion is a very uncomfortable feeling, and much tension in Israel and the Jewish world today derives from these frustrations — the role of women in religious life, how we treat converts, and the status of non-Jewish refugees in Israel (among many others). I can empathize with these frustrations, and while I would hope they choose otherwise, I can understand why those who feel “left out” would eventually prefer just to leave.
However, I think there is an important message in the selective language that the Torah uses. As we saw in the two examples quoted above, while the Torah recognizes that there are certain people who have power (economic in this case), and others who don’t, there is an obligation for the powerful to help the powerless — to allow them to rest and celebrate as well.
Judaism is not opposed to power or wealth. We don’t promote extreme pacifism or asceticism. But these gifts come with a responsibility. If you receive them, you must share.
This idea of the strong protecting the weak is perhaps the core value of the entire Torah. It was the reason God took us out of Egypt, and perhaps more importantly why He allowed us to be slaves in the first place — so we would understand what it means to be victims, to be “the other.”
The importance of this approach should not be taken for granted. It is not found in the rest of life on earth, where we find “the survival of the fittest.” In fact, while the Torah does not take a stand on the theory of evolution, it certainly opposes the practice of evolution. In evolution, the only way for a species to become stronger is for the weak to die off. However, what the Torah introduced to the world was the idea that we need to protect and help the weak, i.e., chesed. We’re the only species that has that moral imperative, and that is what makes humanity different and the Torah so important.
In light of the primacy of this mandate, it is extremely disheartening to see Jews who pledge allegiance to the Torah and its values overlooking the danger to the weak and the unprotected in the campaign and ultimate election of Donald Trump.
Entire sections of American society are feeling threatened — immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities, and women (who are obviously not a minority). And while the stench of anti-Semitism is beginning to emerge as well, at this point the Jews do not appear to be the primary target of the hate. Maybe for some, therefore, our protests aren’t warranted. And perhaps the incoming administration will be even better for Israel! (I have my serious doubts — but that’s an issue for a separate post.)
But at what cost? Can we really welcome those who embrace bigotry, violence and xenophobia — when these are the antitheses to the essential values of the Torah itself? Do we really think we can increase the power of Israel, if we ignore God’s repeated instruction — “Remember that you were once slaves in the land of Egypt!”
I, for one, view the survival of the Jewish people over the centuries and the prosperity of modern State of Israel as nothing short of miraculous. But if it is a miracle, we must understand that we cannot contradict the explicit messages of our Redeemer.
In the not so distant past, we Jews were the victims and the strangers, begging the world to have mercy upon us and to protect us from hateful and violent regimes. Today, thank God, our situation is different, and we have significant power and strength, both in the State of Israel as well as within the United States.
Today, we are not the ones needing others to guarantee us joy and tranquility. The opposite is true — we are the ones who are in a position to help others.
Today, the Torah is speaking to you. Will you listen?