“And Egypt will know that I am Hashem when I stretch my hand over Egypt and I take out Bnai Yisrael from among them.” (Shemot 7:5)
We have all been moved by the death and destruction brought about by the recent tsunami. I have received many emails from various Jewish organizations that are involved in raising funds for disaster relief. Each of these organizations has contacted our school and requested that we make every effort to support their efforts. However, at the same time, I have been following an interesting dialogue on the web critiquing this massive fundraising effort. One of the issues alluded to in this dialogue relates to our responsibility as Jews for non-Jews. Are we responsible to respond to a tragedy that primarily affects non-Jews?
This week’s parasha speaks directly to this issue. In the above passage, Hashem tells Moshe that He will punish the Egyptians with terrible plagues. Through experiencing this punishment, the Egyptians will come to recognize Hashem. In the context of our redemptions from Egypt, this is a strange statement. We generally, assume that the events of the redemption were designed essentially or exclusively for the benefit of Bnai Yisrael. The Egyptians were punished in order to save the Jewish people. Yet, this passage seems to state that this popular view is not entirely accurate. According to the pasuk, the plagues Hashem brought upon the Egyptians were not solely designed to benefit Bnai Yisrael. The plagues had an additional purpose. Hashem’s also intended – through the plagues – to educate the Egyptians.
Gershonides argues that there is no contradiction between our pasuk and the view that the plagues were designed exclusively for the benefit of Bnai Yisrael. According to Gershonides, Hashem was not interested in the perfection of the Egyptians. However, it was important to discourage the Egyptians from pursuing Bnai Yisrael. The plagues and the destruction of the Egyptian army at the Reed Sea would persuade the remnant of the Egyptian people that they could not overcome the will of Hashem. Hashem told Moshe that Egypt will be thoroughly defeated and through this defeat it will recognize that it cannot battle the will of the Almighty.
However, Sforno has a completely different understanding of our passage. According to his view, Hashem was concerned with the perfection of the Egyptians. Hashem told Moshe that he would bring plagues upon the Egyptians and punish them for their treatment of the Jewish people, in order to provide a compelling moral lesson. The plagues and punishments were designed to save Bnai Yisrael and to demonstrate to the Egyptians Hashem’s awesome power over the universe and His justice. Hopefully, they would learn the lesson communicated by their experience and repent.
It is clear from Sforno’s comments that Hashem is not concerned with the welfare of only Bnai Yisrael. His attention is also directed towards the welfare of all peoples of the world. This outlook is reflected in many of the comments and observations of our Sages.
Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes discusses at length the Torah’s attitude towards non-Jews and its expectations regarding our relationship with the non-Jewish community. His discussion begins with the investigation of an interesting paradox. Rav Chajes observes that the Sages instituted a number of restrictions regarding our interactions with non-Jews. For example, it is prohibited to travel or be alone with a non-Jew. It is prohibited to seek medical treatment from a non-Jew. These and various other injunctions are indicative of a basic and intense distrust of non-Jews. But Rav Chajes observes that other statements of our Sages express a very different perspective. The Mishne teaches – according to Rav Chajes’ interpretation – that we are not permitted to treat any person disgracefully. Rav Chajes asserts that the requirement to treat others with respect applies to our interactions with all people – Jewish or non-Jewish. The Mishne also teaches that the human being must be regarded a precious creation; we are created in the image of G-d. Rav Chajes quotes the comments of Tosefot Yom Tov on this Mishne. Tosefot Yom Tov observes that the Mishne is apparently referring to all human beings – Jews and non-Jews. We are all created in Hashem’s image.
How can we reconcile these two very different perspectives? We are instructed to conduct ourselves with extreme care and caution in our interaction with non-Jews. Yet, we are required to treat all human beings with the greatest respect! Rav Chajes observes that the answer lies in understanding the context of the injunctions limiting our interactions with non-Jews. He explains that these injunctions reflect the reality of the historical relationship between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities. Our Sages lived in an environment in which this relationship was predicated upon intense anti-Semitism. During much of our history – and even in modern times – the murder of a Jew has not been viewed as a crime or even worthy of casual condemnation. Our Sages were responding to this unpleasant and dangerous reality. Their injunctions were a response to this historical relationship and designed to protect the safety of the Jewish community.
This interpretation is supported by Maimonides’ treatment of these injunctions. He includes his description of these injunctions in his discussion of the laws governing our obligation to care for our health and well-being. The inclusion of these injunctions in this discussion indicates that these prohibitions are not designed to foster segregation or inform our attitudes towards non-Jews. Instead, they are intended to protect and insure the safety of the community.
Based on this understanding of these injunctions, Rav Chajes explains that they do not at all contradict the imperative to respect and cherish all human beings. Every person is a reflection of the Creator and we must build our relationships upon that foundation. However, this does not mean that we can act without caution or disregard our personal safety.
Perhaps, the most interesting part of Rav Chajes’ discussion deals with the Torah’s attitude towards other major religions – specifically Islam and Christianity. The level of religious tolerance expressed in these comments is remarkable. In order to appreciate his comments we must first acknowledge that conventional religions are not generally notable for their tolerant attitudes. Many of the most vicious wars and persecutions have been justified on religious grounds. In our own time this remains true. If we consider the various conflicts around the word, differences over religious doctrine remain a common element underlying many of these conflicts – or at least a basis used for their justification.
In general, each religion claims to be the absolute and incontrovertible truth. The corollary of this contention is that all other religions should be suppressed. Followers of other faiths are condemned to damnation and should be either converted or eliminated. Rav Chajes contrasts this general, prevalent outlook with the Torah’s perspective. Rav Chajes must acknowledge that we contend that the Torah is a divinely revealed truth. However, this conviction does not generate the intolerance commonly associated with organized religion. The Torah does condemn – in the most unequivocal terms – idolatry. However, the Torah establishes specific perimeters for classifying idolatry. Religious faiths that do not fall within these perimeters are not condemned. The Torah does not endorse the details of these faiths, but neither does it suggest that we should persecute or mistreat the adherents of these religions. Rav Chajes – in a lengthy analysis – concludes that neither Christianity nor Islam come close to falling within the perimeters of idolatry. Therefore, we are required to demonstrate uncompromised tolerance towards these religions.
Rav Chajes closes his comments with another remarkable observation. Most religions contend that its adherents have the exclusive rights of entry into heaven. One who accepts the tenets of the faith is assured eternity and those who reject the religion are condemned to eternal damnation. Rav Chajes’ observes that this is not the view of the Torah. According to the Torah, a non-Jew who accepts the seven Noahide laws as a revealed truth is worthy of eternity. Furthermore, we are required to care for and sustain these individuals. Rav Chajes observes that both Christianity and Islam accept these laws as a revealed truth and direct their adherents to observe these laws. On this basis, they are worthy of eternity and deserve our support.
I realize that this brief summary is not a comprehensive treatment of these issues and certainly additional issues can be raised. But I hope that these thoughts will provide some insight and direction. Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Shemot, (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1994), p 30.  Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot, 74.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Rotzeach U’Shemirat HaNefesh 12:7-12.  Mesechet Avot 4:3.  Mesechet Avot 3:14.  Rav Yom Tov Lippman, Tosefot Yom Tov Commentary on Mesechet Avot 3:14.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 8:11.  Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Esurai Biah 14:7-8.  Rav Tzvi Hirsch Chajes, Teferet LeYisrael(Collected Writings, pp 483-491).