Friday, August 3, 2007

And We're Back! Ekev 5767 -- Bread and Clothes for the Stranger

After so many months, and one and a half books of the Torah, I'm pleased to be back with just a little piece of Torah. We'll start small and then try to build up some momentum for some more ambitious learning.

In this week's parasha, Moshe continues his speech to the people, a mixture of review of the amazing events that they have been through, chastening them for their repeated sins, and giving, or reminding them, of commandments. The fifth aliyah contains almost all of this in microsm. In it, Moshe reminds the people of God's greatness, God is "The Doer of justice for the widow and orphan, who loves the sojourner and gives him bread and clothing." In the next verse, the people are commanded "and you shall love the sojourner, because you were sojourners in the land of Egypt."

Compared with the other illustrations of God's greatness, this one perhaps pales. God made the earth swallow up Datan and Aviram, drowned the Egyptians in the Yam Suf, and made 600,000 Jews out of the 70-person family of Jacob. To paraphrase Star Wars, compared to the power to make the earth open up, God's powers as grocer and tailor seem insignificant.

This was bothering Rashi too, who therefore noted "v'davar hashuv hu zeh." This giving of clothing and food to the sojourner is no small matter, but is very important, an illustration -- no less than the other feats -- of God's gevurah or might. Why is this so important? "Sh'Kol Atzmo shel Yaakov Avinu al zeh hitpallel -- because Jacob prayed with all his essence on this matter."

Rashi is referring to an incident in Genesis 28. When Jacob made his covenant with God, he made it conditional: if God will be with me, guard me on my way, and give me food to eat and clothing to wear, then the Almighty will be my God. That Jacob, faced with the reality and imminence of God, made his covenant with the Almighty conditional is a deep issue, but the important point is that Jacob made clothing and food one of those conditions. Moreover, Jacob was, at the time of this covenant, and for most of his life, a stranger and sojourner.

I think that Rashi is suggesting that we should see God's feeding and clothing of sojourners as a quasi-covenantal action. The commandment to love the stranger is therefore bookended by two justifications. Immediately after, "because you were sojourners in the land of Egypt," and immediately before, because God "loves the sojourner and gives him bread and clothing." Just as God loves the Jewish people and fulfills the covenant with the last of our foreparents by providing food and clothing, so too does God love sojourners and provide them with the same sustenance that was a material condition of our covenant.

Had Moshe only given the second reason, we might have said, "we should be good to sojourners because we were once sojourners. Though we are better than them, we should give them our sympathy and pity because we once were lowly like they." Moshe therefore prefaced that verse with the invokation of God's covenant with Jacob. We should love the sojourner because God loves the sojourner, and, indeed gives the sojourner that which our ancestor Jacob had to specially request. May we merit to emulate the covenantal ways of God through our kindness to those who sojourn among us.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Hafsaka 5767

The Kaplowitz Torah blog will be -- and has been -- on extended hiatus due to Pesach, exams, and the hubbub of moving to Chicago for the summer.

If anyone would like to contribute a piece over the next few weeks, please let me know and we will post it.