This week's parsha presents a variety of laws. In the seventh aliya we are given a reason for two of them -- because we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us. We see this theme in other places in Torah (and we remember the exodus in liturgy every day). But it's something I have trouble relating to on a personal level -- while it is part of our national history, it's usually pretty hard for me to see myself as having been redeemed from Egypt. (Even the people Moshe was addressing, with two exceptions, were not in Egypt.) I don't think I'm alone in this difficulty; would the haggadah have to remind us to see ourselves "as if" we had gone out of Egypt if this came easily to almost everyone?
But why should this be a problem? Mitzvot are mitzvot; we shouldn't need to be given specific reasons. The issue I see is that if we're given a reason and we don't relate to that reason, could that weaken the mitzvah, making us less likely to heed it? Especially if the reason seems to be guilt-based or "you owe me one"? It reminds me of times during childhood when my father would tell us kids "your mother worked hard on this meal and you're going to eat all of it, even the brussels sprouts". The guilt got me to do the action at my mother's table, but I don't eat brussels sprouts now. As an exercise of guilt it worked; as a way to get me to change my dining habits it didn't. Sure, that's a trivial example, and I'm not trying to compare the torah to unwanted vegetables. I'm just talking about the way a commandment with that kind of motivation can come off to a listener who isn't already completely sold.
I mentioned that this motif shows up a lot in torah, so I became curious about whether the associated mitzvot had anything in common. If so, maybe that could help me make the connection to the redemption theme. So I began searching (aided by a digital copy of the torah text). The words "Egypt" and "slave" occur a lot in the torah, so in the end I limited my search to Sefer D'varim, Moshe's final speech. I found five occurrences there. What are the associated mitzvot?
One, from this week's passage, is to not abuse the stranger, the fatherless, or the widow. Why them in particular? They are particularly vulnerable; someone without a father or husband to serve as advocate and protector is at a disadvantage, and someone without connections to the community is also isolated. We were strangers in Egypt and that didn't work so well for us at the time. Now we are not; we are part of a community, most of us [in the congregation where I was speaking] have good family relations, and we're overall in a good place in society. Let's remember that not everyone is.
Another, from just a few lines later in this week's passage, concerns gleanings. When we harvest our crops and miss or drop some, we are not to go back for it; we have to leave that for the poor to come gather. We have food enough to spare; we're in a much better position than someone whose most productive path to a meal is to follow us around hoping for scraps. Further, while we cultivated the field, we don't get full credit for making the food. As we have benefitted from God's bounty, so must we provide bounty to others.
A third has to do with the festivals. We're told that when we celebrate we have to include everyone, including our servants, and not just our own families. We have the means to make a celebration, so we have to include those who don't.
A fourth regards the sh'mita year. One year in seven we must let our fields lie fallow rather than leeching every last bit of life from the land. We don't need to, so we mustn't get greedy.
The last one I found is the one that we probably all figured out without help: Shabbat. Not only are we commanded to take a day of rest for God, but we have to give this to our workers and our animals. We have the power to compel work on every day (as was done to the slaves in Egypt), but we don't do so.
The common theme I see in these commandments -- protecting the weak, gleanings, festivals, sh'mita, and shabbat -- is privilege. We're in a better position than others; we are not to abuse it. We're pretty comfortable today in this community. Most of us don't even have to work for six days, let alone seven. We have comfortable homes, ample food, and probably more than a few luxuries. We've had pretty good educations and, often, outside encouragement to grow. Many of us come from stable families (my parents, for instance, just celebrated their 47th anniversary), and we are all part of a caring community. We live in safe neighborhoods and the police are a phone call away if needed. Most of us have pretty good health care, even with the current mess. These things aren't true of everyone (even in our own city to say nothing of the nation or world), and we have a religious obligation to acknowledge our own comfortable positions and help those who were dealt different cards. (I said religious, not political; we don't live in a theocracy.)
We are entitled to benefit from our own hard work; I'm not trying to say that everything comes only from God, we had no part in it, and communism is the right way to organize a society. No, we should be able to enjoy the fruits of our labor without guilt; there is nothing wrong with studying hard, getting a good job, and buying that nice house, car, or vacation. But we should remember that it's not all from us alone; we did the work but God gave us the brains, stable families, and health that allowed us to flourish.
With that context, I can view the redemption-from-Egypt basis for mitzvot not as some sort of guilt or divine scorekeeping, but rather as a reminder of the other ways in which I have been redeemed. As I have benefitted, so am I obligated to behave well toward others who haven't. And if someday I can make the personal connection to Egypt, this feeling can only get stronger.