Following the holidays of Tisha B’av and Tu B’av we read parashat Eikev, which encourages us to explore the relationship between the elements of judgement and love that we hold within us. In parashat Eikev we continue reading the speech that Moses delivered before his death, the message he passes unto the people of Israel just before they enter the Promised Land. Midway through the parasha, we encounter the following verses:
“Circumcise, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:16-19)
Rabbi Samuel David Luzzato (Shadal) teaches that these verses invoke two important elements of Jewish morality: The element of providence and the element of compassion – if one of these two principles are removed, it is impossible to maintain a moral human society.
In these verses the element of providence manifests itself in a system of reward and punishment. Moses reminds us that the “the great and terrible” God is everywhere and serves justice without prejudice or bribery. The element of compassion appears within the verb “love.“ We see that divine morality stems not only from firm judgement, but also from compassion, love and empathy for the vulnerable among us (“You shall love the stranger for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt”).
We humans, created in God’s image, play an important role in this moral system. Those who hold positions of leadership must exercise both providence and compassion. In verse 16, Moses tells us: “Circumcise, therefore, the thickening about your hearts.” Moses reminds us that in addition to the circumcision that we are familiar with of baby boys, there is also a “circumcision of the heart.” To take part in Judaism’s moral destiny we must circumcise the foreskin of our hearts; on our hearts there is a mask, a covering that prevents us from seeing the other and identifying with their suffering, a covering that enables us to harm others, even in the name of law and justice. Moses warns us not to act with the element of providence alone and to open our hearts to human compassion.
These verses hold true to this day. The orphan and the widow among us need the protection of the legal system. They cannot afford lawyers and lobbyists, they have no connections within the government, and therefore, their only defenses are justice, law and the element of providence.
In the case of the stranger, however, parashat Eikev teaches that the law is not enough. The law, at least in modern Israel, does not apply to the foreigner the same way that it applies to citizens. For example, asylum seekers and migrant workers without permanent status are not entitled to Social Security or Unemployment Insurance, even at this difficult time.Here, Moses introduces the element of love and teaches a lesson in compassion. According to the law, the stranger may not be entitled to the same rights, but you must love them because they, like you, were created in God’s image, and out of the element of compassion you are to give them food and clothing.
We learn from Exodus 22:26: If you take your neighbor’s clothing as collateral for something that they borrowed from you, and your neighbor does not return what they had borrowed, the law does not require you to return their clothing. But here the Torah appeals to the element of compassion: “…it is his only clothing, the sole covering for his skin. In what else shall he sleep? Therefore, if he cries out to Me, I will pay heed, for I am compassionate.” Even in this time of global pandemic and crisis, we must remember to circumcise our hearts – to remove the mask from our hearts, to hear the cry of the oppressed and make our hearts compassionate.
Nir Braudo is the Deputy Director of BINA: The Jewish Movement for Social Change.