Ki Tetzei contains more laws than any other parshah in the Torah, and it is possible to be overwhelmed by this embarrass de richesse of detail. One verse, however, stands out by its sheer counter-intuitiveness:
“Do not despise an Edomite, because he is your brother. Do not despise the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” (Deut. 23: 8)
These are very unexpected commands. Understanding them will teach us an important lesson about leadership.
First, a general point. Jews have been subjected to racism more and longer than any other nation on earth. Therefore we should be doubly careful never to be guilty of it ourselves. We believe that God created each of us, regardless of color, class, culture or creed, in His image. If we look down on other people because of their race, then we are demeaning God’s image and failing to respect kavod ha’briyot, human dignity.
If we think less of a person because of the color of his or her skin, we are repeating the sin of Aaron and Miriam – “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.” (Num. 12: 1)
There are Midrashic interpretations that read this passage differently but the plain sense is that they looked down on Moses’ wife because, like Cushite women generally, she had dark skin, making this one of the first recorded instances of color prejudice. For this sin Miriam was struck with leprosy.
Instead we should remember the lovely line from The Song of Songs: “I am black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. Do not stare at me because I am dark, because the sun has looked upon me.” (Song 1: 5)
Jews cannot complain that others have racist attitudes toward them if they hold racist attitudes toward others. “First correct yourself then [seek to] correct others,” says the Talmud (Bava Metzia 107b). Tanach contains negative evaluations of some other nations, but always and only because of their moral failures, never because of ethnicity or skin color.
Now to the two commands against hate, both of which are surprising. “Do not despise the Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” This is extraordinary. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites, planned a program against them of slow genocide, and then refused to let them go despite the plagues that were devastating the land. Are these reasons not to hate?
True: but the Egyptians had initially provided a refuge for the Israelites at a time of famine. They had honored Joseph and made him second-in-command. The evils they committed against them under “a new king who did not know of Joseph” (Ex. 1: 8) were at the instigation of Pharaoh himself, not the people as a whole. Besides which, it was the daughter of that Pharaoh who had rescued Moses and adopted him.
The Torah makes a clear distinction between the Egyptians and the Amalekites. The latter were destined to be perennial enemies of Israel, but not the former. In a later age Isaiah would make a remarkable prophecy, that a day would come when the Egyptians would suffer their own oppression. They would cry out to God, who would rescue them just as he had rescued the Israelites:
When they cry out to the Lord because of their oppressors, he will send them a savior and defender, and he will rescue them. So the Lord will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the Lord. (Isaiah 19: 20-21)