Shabbat Shalom: Ki Teitze

Image: One of my bookshelves, with Bibles, a crown, and a yahrzeit candle. (Ruth Adar)

This week’s Torah portion has a little surprise in it.

Readers familiar with the Book of Ruth may be puzzled to read the commandment against marrying Moabites in Deuteronomy 23:4:

“An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the Lord.” Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, was born a Moabite: that is the whole point of the Book of Ruth.

How could King David be descended from a forbidden marriage?

The sages struggled with this text and its apparent conflict with the Book of Ruth, especially since the prohibition is reinforced by a line from Nehemiah 13:1-2: “At that time they read to the people from the Book of Moses, and it was found written that no Ammonite or Moabite might ever enter the congregation of God, since they did not meet Israel with bread and water, and hired Balaam against them to curse them; but our God turned the curse into a blessing.”

The sages resolve the issue in M.Yevamot 8:3, ruling that the prohibition is only against Moabite men converting or marrying a Jewish woman; Moabite women are permitted to convert. The Gemara elaborates with a story about an Edomite who suggested to Saul that David may not be fit even to be part of the kahal, since he descends from Ruth the Moabite. Saul’s general, Abner, replies that the prohibition applies only to males, because women stay in the house when men go out to meet strangers. (Yevamot 76b)

Another possibility from modern scholarship: Megillat Ruth (The Scroll of Ruth) was composed from a legend that had circulated for centuries. It was written down in the early Second Temple period when Ezra was making his proclamations against “foreign wives.” It was composed as a reply to Ezra’s attitude about intermarriage, by arguing that even King David had an ancestor who was not born a Jew.

At every point in Jewish history, there is someone warning against converts in general or against a particular convert. As a giyoret (female convert) myself, I take comfort in knowing that there have also been, in every age, someone speaking up for us.

On September 11

9/11
U.S. Navy Photo by Photographer’s Mate 2nd Class Jim Watson, taken 9/15/2001

There is a famous saying that holding a grudge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. On the one hand, it is very important that we never forget the days like 9/11, the Holocaust, and other such dates which will “live in infamy.” On the other, it is important not to allow those memories to poison us. How are we to resolve the two?

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God. Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven; you shall not forget! – Deuteronomy 25: 17-19.

This is the teaching we read only a short time ago as part of our weekly Torah reading. Amalek was the ancient enemy of the Israelites, and we are commanded both to “blot out the memory of Amalek” and “not forget.”

We succeed in keeping these twin commandments when we refuse to allow the pain of the past to transform us into those who have done evil to us. We must not allow ourselves to be infected by the hatred that drives a terrorist, by the racism that drove the Nazis. Those senseless hatreds are what we must blot out forever. At the same time we must strive to remember what it is to suffer, to remember what terrorism and genocide really look like.

When we manage both to blot out evil and yet to remember, we persist in lives of Torah, which means caring for our own needs as well as caring for the well-being of the stranger among us. Only when and if that stranger proves to be an enemy may we treat him or her as such.

Remember? Forget? We must do both. It is not easy, but the memories of all the dead deserve no less.