In parshah Ki Tetzei, Moses teaches us, almost as an afterthought, “Do not hate an Edomite because he is your brother.” This teaching is understandable. After all, even an estranged brother who has wronged me is still my brother. But then, in a leap hard to grasp for many of us, the Torah goes on to teach, “Do not hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land” (23:8).
What? How can we help but hate those who enslaved us? Whose king demanded that “every male Israelite born be thrown into the Nile”? There must be a deeper meaning to these words. How can we be expected to develop good relations with such a mortal enemy? Which do we do? Do we recall our suffering in Egypt (l’maan tizkor et yom tzetcha m’eretz Mitzrayim) or do we “not hate an Egyptian”?
When I studied at Yeshiva University, hundreds of us would rush to the cafeteria after morning seder to quickly get our lunches so we could make it to our afternoon shiur on time. As you can imagine, the line could grow very long. There, standing behind the counter, dishing out daily helpings of whatever was on the menu was a gentle Holocaust survivor, Mr. Weber. To this day, so many years later, I can still hear his voice prompting us along: “Move de line, move de line.”
Over the many years of my life, his constant refrain has become integral to my personal philosophy. To me, he was not simply asking us not to slow down the line; he was telling us not to get stuck in a tough spot and, by extension, not to remain mired in the bitterness of the inevitable challenges and disappointments we all face – not to bear grudges for the rest of our lives.
We all have to “move de line.”
That means letting go of the negatives that hold us back – the things that enslave us, that humiliate us, that degrade us. Ironically, until we can let go of those things, we will remain enslaved, even long after our captors have set us free. We need to “move de line” if we are to forge new paths and realize new goals.
Hurt begets hurt. Anger begets anger. Hate begets hate. If you want to move de line, you have to let go of hurt and anger. If your “captor” allows you to go free, the least you can do is grant yourself the same grace. As long as you continue to be enslaved by negativity, you can know no freedom; you cannot embark on a new beginning. You are stuck.
As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks eloquently teaches, “To be free, you have to let go of hate. That is what Moses is saying. If they continued to hate their erstwhile enemies, Moses would have taken the Israelites out of Egypt, but he would not have taken Egypt out of the Israelites. Mentally, they would still be there, slaves to the past. They would still be in chains, not of metal but of the mind – and chains of the mind are the most constricting of all.”
But what of all the mitzvot centered on Yetziat Mitzrayim – including those recalled on Shabbat, when laying tefillin, putting on our tzitzit or reciting the ancient truths at our Seders? In fact, there is no hate, no rage, no call for revenge or retaliation – not even a shred of negativity – in any of these mitzvot. Instead, they focus on the positive: Remember. Learn. Grow.
Move de line.
Rav Soloveitchik views the Egyptian exile and suffering as the “…experience which molded the moral quality of the Jewish people for all time.” Rather than embitter us, our experience in Egypt and subsequent emancipation teaches us not to hate and retaliate but rather “…ethical sensitivity, what it truly means to be a Jew. It sought to transform the Jew into a rachaman, one possessing a heightened form of ethical sensitivity and responsiveness.”
The most practical method of teaching compassion, sensitivity and concern for others, the most direct way of imparting a sense of mitgefiel, is to recall one’s own experience of tzarah. It should come as no surprise that it is often he who has suffered sickness who best understands the discomfort of the ill; he who has sustained loss who can best comfort the bereaved, and he who knew wealth and success but who suffered reversals who can best identify with a colleague or neighbor who confronts similar obstacles.