Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Ki Seitzei: Kindness lives forever
Ammonites and Moabites are restricted from marrying Jewish spouses. The Talmud teaches that this only refers to the male members of these nations. The Torah recounts the horrible things the Egyptians did to the Jewish people, yet they are permitted to intermarry. Rashi explains that the difference is that the Egyptians harmed the bodies of the Jewish people, but the Moabites and Ammonites afflicted the Jewish souls. The Egyptians calculated that most likely the family of Joseph had some of his amazing talents, and Egypt would benefit greatly from having his family join their economy. No matter how harshly we were treated in Egypt, the Torah expects the Jewish people to remember the initial benefits given us by the Egyptians.
Ammonites and Moabites restricted
It says in this week's Torah portion (Devarim 23:4-6): "An Ammonite and a Moabite shall not enter the congregation of G'd … forever, due to the fact that they did not greet you with bread and water en route when you left Egypt and because they hired Bilam … to curse you".
Females not restricted
This prohibition does not restrict these two nations from converting to Judaism. It only means that they can never marry a regular Jewish spouse. The Talmud (Yevamot 73a) teaches that only the males of these two nations are prohibited from marrying Jewish spouses since the females were not expected to come and greet the travelers. This explains how Ruth, a Moabite princess, was able to marry Boaz and became the matriarch of the Davidic royal dynasty. Rashi quotes an additional reason why the males of these two nations are not allowed to intermarry with us. They were the ones who instigated and caused the Jewish men to commit acts of immorality and idolatry, as mentioned in the end of Parashas Balak (Bamidbar 25:1-3).
Egyptians not restricted
A little later (Devarim 23:8-9) it says: "You shall not reject an Egyptian, for you were a sojourner in his land. The third generation of children born to them may enter the congregation of G'd". This seems strange. If we were asked who would be more acceptable to intermarry with the Jewish people after conversion, the Moabites and the Ammonites would seem to be a more likely choice than the Egyptians. The Torah recounts briefly and our sages further elaborate all the horrible things the Egyptians did to the Jewish people. They drowned the newborn Jewish males in the Nile, and used Jewish children as bricks in their buildings. They inflicted us with hard labour and treated us very cruelly. So why does the Torah permit the Egyptians to intermarry with us while the male Moabites and Ammonites are prohibited? Was the cruelty of the Egyptians not much worse than the acts of these two other nations?
Lose share in world to come
Rashi answers this and explains that whereas the Egyptians harmed the physical bodies of the Jewish people, the Moabites and Ammonites afflicted the Jewish souls. The Torah here teaches us an amazing insight. One who causes another to sin does a lot more harm than one who kills. Someone who gets killed is "only" deprived for a limited time of his share in this world. But if one is brought to sin he may lose his share both in this world and in the World to Come for all eternity.
Egyptians initially hospitable
Furthermore, the Torah expressly states that the Moabites and Ammonites are barred from intermarrying because they did not greet the Jewish people with food and water. On the other hand, when Jacob and his family first came to Egypt, they were given Goshen, the finest land in the country, as a new homeland. Even though the Egyptians would later treat the Jewish people with great cruelty, their initial treatment was one of kindness and hospitality.
The fact that the Egyptians were not acting altruistically does not diminish our benefit. The Talmud (Berachot 63b) points out that the Egyptians anticipated that Joseph's family also had some of his amazing talents. They calculated that Egypt would benefit greatly from having such a family join their economy. The Torah also records Pharaoh's excitement of having Joseph's family to watch over his livestock for him (see Bereishis 47:6). This was the first of many times in history when nations opened their borders to the Jewish people in anticipation of economic gains they expected would follow. However, all this does not change the fact that we originally benefited from the hospitality of the Egyptian people.
However another question needs clarification. Moab and Ammon were not the only nations who closed their borders to the Jewish people. Edom did also not allow them to enter their country (see Bamidbar 20:18-21). So why are only the Moabite and Ammonite males barred from intermarrying? The Ramban (Devarim 23:5) explains that these two nations were descendants of Lot, Abraham's nephew. Lot was an orphan and his uncle, Abraham, raised him as his own son. He brought him into his house and taught him how to earn a living. Abraham showered Lot with great wealth and opportunity, and risked his own life to rescue Lot and his family from kidnappers. The nations of Moab and Ammon owed their existence to Abraham. So when the Jewish people emerged from the desert, these two nations ought to recall all the kindness their ancestor Lot received from Abraham and to provide his descendants with food and water. In fact, says the Rambam, the Moabites did sell them food and water, but sinned by hiring Bilam to curse the Jews.
The Torah here teaches us to what extent we are expected to remember a benefit or favour and express our gratitude. The Torah goes far beyond normal expectations. Six generations had passed since the time Abraham looked after Lot. Nevertheless, the Torah shows that it was expected of the descendants of Lot to remember how their ancestor was provided for and show their gratitude hundreds of years later. In the same way, the Torah expects the Jewish people to remember the benefits our forefathers received when they settled in Goshen. Although the Egyptians later treated us with extreme cruelty, we are still instructed to allow them to intermarry with us if they convert to Judaism, in deference to their initial hospitality.
In our daily lives, we constantly receive benefits from others. These people may have personal, even selfish reasons for providing us with what we need, but the Torah still expects us to appreciate and remember every benefit we receive. For example, a storeowner should appreciate the customers who patronize his store, and at the same time the customers should appreciate that the store provides them with their needs. With such an attitude they would mutually thank each other, irrelevant whether the purchase was large or small.
Pleasant and peaceful lives
Each time we return the Torah scrolls to the ark, we say "the ways of the Torah are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace" (Mishlei 3:17). If we would internalize this lesson and train ourselves to remember every kindness extended to us, how pleasant and peaceful our lives would be!
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network