Three Surprising Examples of Jewish Historical Memory

Eighteen Nisan

We can treat the Exodus as going back only as far as the harsh slavery, and ending with the Jews walking out of Egypt or perhaps the Splitting of the Sea. Three mitzvot take a wider view, extending our memories of the Exodus both much before and much after that, and yet still clearly including it as part of our experience of the Exodus. They remind us that the Exodus includes more than we tend to realize.

The Practices of the Egyptians

In Vayikra 18;3, the Torah introduces a list of prohibited sexual relationships (known as the עריות) by warning us not to act according to the practices of the land of Egypt, where we lived (also the Canaanites, but that’s a different topic). Rashi reads this as telling us that these nations’ sexual morality was the worst of all the nations of the time (because they’re the ones the Torah singles out). The verse’s stress on “where we resided” tells Rashi we lived among the worst of those in Egypt.

Of all the places we might have gestated as a nation, Hashem chose the one with the worst sexuality. To me, it suggests that Hashem was reinforcing a lesson we should have learned from our forefather Avraham, that we sometimes need to reject that which we see around us. That’s easiest to do when what’s around us is really wrong; otherwise, we can find ourselves hedging, picking and choosing practices worth adopting. In Egypt, it was supposed to be easy; they were so far gone, we had to reject everything, helping us exercise our “rejecting what needs rejecting” muscles.

That our forefathers didn’t succeed in Egypt or Canaan shows how hard it can be, reminds us to redouble our own efforts to take on only that which is right and good, and to firmly repudiate all that which is wrong and bad, no matter how attractive, and no matter how much those around us—seemingly intelligent, ethical, and well-meaning people-- might assert that it’s right and good.

The Modernity of the Prohibition

It’s particularly apt in our day, because Prohibition 353 in Rambam’s Seferha Mitzvot accepts Sifra’s reading that the ways of the Egyptians which the Torah was referencing were that they accepted a man marrying a man, a woman marrying a woman, and one woman marrying two men. Remember that the Sifra is Mishnaic, Rambam lived in the 1100s, and they were expressing their understanding of what occurred in Egypt, over a thousand years earlier. These versions of sexuality have been known throughout history, are not some new insight of modern sophisticates, despite their protestations to that effect.

Not only are these forms of sexuality prohibited, they are linked to our experience in Egypt. Part of what we are supposed to remember about our time there 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 resistant to its temptations, as codified here. But that’s not always how it works out.

Excluding the Ammonite and Moabite

Devarim23;4 tells us that a male Ammonite or Moabite who converts cannot marry natural-born Jews forever. Male descendants of this convert will have to marry other converts, in perpetuity. This limitation is restricted to this one area: as far as I know, all the special love we owe converts (as we’ll see in coming days) applies to these converts as well. It is not that we are unhappy with this person’s converting, it is that the Torah set up a particular (and challenging) prohibition.

Too, this prohibition is not in practice today, because we have lost these lineages. We do not know who the “real” Ammonites, Moabites, or Egyptians are. These prohibitions still matter, I think, mostly for what they teach us about our obligatory historical memory.

Because They Didn’t Greet You

The Torah gives two reasons for never marrying Ammonites or Moabites, that they didn’t greet us with bread and water on our way out of Egypt and hired Bilam to curse us. Rashi notes the first two words of verse 5, על דבר, which really means “for the fact that,” were read hyper-literally as “for the word,” teaching Sifre that this included Bilam’s idea to have the Moabites lure the Jews sexually, exposing them to Hashem’s wrath.

Kli Yakar suggests that Rashi was trying to explain why the failure to meet us with bread and water would create such a lasting blemish on all Ammonites and Moabites. He thinks Rashi’s idea implies that they deliberately refrained from giving us food or drink to make us more vulnerable to the blandishments of their women. All Bilam’s idea.

One weakness with this is that the daily מן was still coming down at that point; perhaps it was the withholding of human connection unless we engaged them sexually—they didn’t offer us the succor of bread and water and the human interaction that goes with that, in order to make us more vulnerable to the offer of connection.

Part of what we might learn from Ammon and Moav, in Kli Yakar’s eyes, is to avoid the state of weakened resistance to inappropriate blandishments.

We Are Not Blank Slates

Especially if we don’t buy Kli Yakar’s answer, his question looms. What in their not offering bread and water (or hiring Bilam to curse us) affects their men for all time?

Ramban in his Commentary and Sefer haChinuch in Mitzvah 561 agree that it’s a character flaw the incident shows, but point to different flaws. Ramban thinks it is lack of gratitude towards the descendants of Avraham, in whose merit Lot and his daughters(the ancestors of Ammon and Moav) were saved. Sefer haChinuch thinks it’s their more general lack of kindness.

Your Way Out of Egypt

Meshech Chochmah wonders at the Torah’s calling this “on your way out of Egypt,” when it actually happened on the verge of entering Israel, forty years later. He answers that as long as we didn’t have our own land, we were still “on our way out.”

That means the Exodus didn’t end the day we got out, or even once we crossed the Sea and never saw the Egyptians again. We were on our way until we arrived.

Were we to know Ammonites and Moabites today, they would be a constant reminder of events long after the Exodus, which the Torah characterizes as on our way out of Egypt. The way they treated us then reverberates, affecting their descendants forever.

Keeping Track of the Good As Well

In verse 9 of chapter 23 in Devarim, the Torah tells us we shouldn’t completely reject the Edomite, because he is our brother,nor the Egyptian, because we were strangers in his land. The third generation of converts from either nation may freely marry other Jews (meaning: the child of a first generation Egyptian convert is a second generation Egyptian, but his child, the third generation, is an ordinary Jew. The definition for these purposes follows the father).

It’s a strange comment about the Egyptians because, as Rashi and Rosh note, they didn’t treat us well. Rashi focuses on their having killed our sons. What makes that interesting is that Rashi also held that Par’oh killed Jewish babies only at the time of Moshe’s birth (to forestall the redeemer), yet he sees that as significant enough that Hashem could have decided to permanently proscribe marrying their converts. Similarly, the Haggadah names their killing our sons as one of the three aspects of our time in Egypt that Hashem “saw” when deciding it was time to redeem us, despite its happening 80 years before the Exodus.

The point that everyone agrees the Torah is making is that when someone provides us a significant benefit, we are never allowed to forget it. Since the Egyptians at first took us in and treated us hospitably, we have to hold that good memory, despite their later horrific treatment.

The closest modern parallel might be Germany: for all that they did during the Holocaust, our overall picture, if we follow this model, has to include Jewry’s having also flourished there for hundreds of years. In many of those years, Germany was the most accepting country in the world for Jews, allowing us the best chance to be full members of society.

Whole Memory, Not Whitewashing Memory

That doesn’t mean we ignore the other parts of the Egyptians’ legacy. The requirement of three generations before they can marry freely might be to rid themselves of anything Egyptian. The convert is himself an Egyptian; his child is the child of an actual Egyptian. The third generation has no direct connection to being an Egyptian.

An Egyptian who is interested in leaving his clouded legacy can do so—he converts, and waits for descendants free of his former nation. Then, the benefit we originally received from Egypt kicks in, telling us we cannot wholly reject these people (as we do the Ammonites, for what would appear a less significant offense).

What makes the Ammonites worse, it would seem, is that no relationship mitigates their evil. In the absence of such a relationship, a relatively little wrong can loom large; in the context of a relationship, even greater wrongs are counterbalanced by other interactions.

How Long Our Memory

We see Egyptians who come to convert through the lens of the good early years along with the bad later ones. Our time in the plains of Moab centuries later is also part of the living past, figuring in our experience of any Ammonite or Moabite we meet; their mistreatment, when we were not yet secure or stable, fuels our lasting marital distance from their converts.

Most applicably today, our time in Egypt is supposed to be alive for us each time we see certain sexual perversions. We would have been required to recoil from them even if they were only prohibited. The Torah tells us that, more than that, we should recognize them for what they are, perversions that have been with humanity since the times of the Egyptians. Because our memory is supposed to be that good.