Mitzvot Connected to the Exodus, Part V: Three Surprising Examples of How Jewish Historical Memory is Supposed to Work

Three of the mitzvot connected to the Exodus highlight the extent of our memory. Two speak of rejecting what we saw in our Exodus experience, one tells us how far we have to go to remember the positive others have done for us.

The Practices of the Egyptians

Vayikra 18;3 leads into a list of the prohibited sexual relationships (the arayot) by warning us not to act according to the practices of the land of Egypt, where we lived. Rashi reports the tradition that this tells us that their modes of behavior were the worst of all the nations.

Before we get to the prohibition, note that Rashi is telling us that of all the places in the world we might have gestated as a nation, Hashem chose the one with the worst ways and mores.  To me, it suggests Hashem was trying to reinforce a lesson we should have learned from Avraham, that we need to reject the actions of those around us, when they’re wrong.

That’s easiest to learn when what they’re doing is really wrong, since otherwise, we find ourselves hedging. But in Egypt and Canaan, it was supposed to be easy; they were so far gone, we had to reject everything. That we didn’t shows how hard it can be, and reminds us to redouble our own efforts to avoid all that which is wrong and bad, no matter how attractive, no matter how much those around us might assert it’s right and good.

The particular definition tradition gives is remarkably contemporary.  In Prohibition 353, Rambam notes the Sifra’s definition of “the paths of the Egyptians” as a man marrying a man, a woman marrying a woman, and one woman marrying two men. Remember that the Sifra is Mishnaic, Rambam is living in the 1100s, and they were expressing their understanding of what had occurred in Egypt. That seems itself a repudiation of those today who insist they are articulating a new vision of the sexual world.

This also means the Torah didn’t only prohibit certain forms of sexuality, it linked them to our experience in Egypt. Part of what we are supposed to remember is that we were forced to live among those who were שטופים בזימה, soaked in sexual immorality.  I think that was supposed to leave us eternally sensitive to such immorality, aware of its dangers and firm in our rejection of it, as codified by the Torah here. But that’s not always how it works out.

Excluding the Ammonite and Moabite

In Devarim 23;4, the Torah tells us that an Ammonite or Moabite man who converts cannot marry natural-born Jews forever. Two important points: first, this special status is limited to this: all the other special love and attention we owe converts applies to them as well. It is not that we begrudge their joining our people, it is that the Torah set up a particular prohibition.

Second, this prohibition is not put into practice today, because tradition tells us these lineages have been lost. Even if someone today claimed to be an Ammonite or Moabite, we would not take that self-identification seriously. So the lessons to be learned from this halachah are, today, theoretical ones. They are important lessons about historical memory nonetheless.

The reasons we can’t ever let them marry us is that they didn’t greet us with bread and water on our way out of Egypt and that they hired Bilam to curse us.

We Are Not Blank Slates

Ramban in his Commentary and Sefer haChinuch in Mitzvah 561 agree that the Torah was noting a flaw in their character displayed by this incident. Ramban thinks it’s their failure to remember that only Avraham’s merit saved their ancestor Lot and his daughters from Sodom.  Sefer haChinuch thinks it’s more general, their lack of kindness and their stinginess.

Either way, one incident establishes a permanent reality.

That reminds us that we are all born bearing a legacy. Some of that might be good, some bad, but we aren’t born blank; we are links in a chain. We have many options as to how to be the best link, but we cannot and should not pretend we can wholly choose our identities.

Keeping Track of the Good

In verse 9 of chapter 23 in Devarim, the Torah tells us that we shouldn’t completely reject the Egyptian, because we were strangers in his land. Instead, the third generation of converts from either of those nations is allowed to freely marry with other Jews.  As Rashi and Rosh note, the Egyptians did so much bad to us—slavery, killing our sons–and yet we’re required to remember that we were strangers in their land.

The Torah is teaching us that when someone provides us with a significant benefit, we are never allowed to forget it.  Since we had some good years, when the Egyptians hosted us nicely, despite it later turning horrible, we have to always hold on to that good memory as well.

The closest modern parallel might be Germany: for all that they tortured us and tried to wipe us out, we have to also remember that Jewry flourished there for centuries. In many of those years, Germany was at the forefront of allowing Jews to be full members of society.

Whole Memory, Not Whitewashing Memory

That doesn’t mean we ignore the other parts of the Egypt experience. I think it’s for that reason that the Torah requires three generations—they need to rid themselves of their past. But an Egyptian who is interested in leaving behind his clouded legacy can do so—he or she converts, and waits to have descendants who have no direct contact with their former nation.

In that case, the benefit we originally received in Egypt kicks in, telling us we cannot wholly reject them.  What makes the Ammonites worse, maybe, is that there’s nothing mitigating the bad. In the absence of a relationship, one relatively little wrong can loom large; in the context of a relationship, even greater wrongs have to be balanced with the legitimately good.

How Long Our Memory

These three mitzvot show how alive our time in Egypt is supposed to be for us.   Our first good years there are part of how we see Egyptians who come to convert.  Our time, centuries later, in the plains of Moab, is also part of the picture, where their mistreatment of us fuels our lasting marital distance from their converts.  And our time in Egypt is supposed to be alive for us each time we see certain sexual perversions.

They would have been a problem if they were only prohibited, but the Torah tells us that, more than that, they are an old problem we’ve seen since our earliest days as a nation, and that we should recognize this for what it is, the perversions of the Egyptians that we are supposed to know to avoid for that reason, let alone any others.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.