Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger
Torah Portion: Ki Tetzei
If a man has two wives, one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, but the first-born is the son of the unloved one — when he wills his property to his sons, he may not treat as first-born the son of the loved one in disregard of the son of the unloved one who is older. Instead, he must accept the first-born, the son of the unloved one, and allot to him a double portion of all he possesses . . . . the birthright is his due. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:15:17)
Good morning! It’s been a while since I’ve found the space to write a drasha but I haven’t given up the enterprise just yet!
This week’s portion, Ki Tetzei, is full of various laws, including laws of war, criminal and civil regulations, and laws defining membership in the Jewish people. One law in particular, quoted above, struck me as a potent metaphor in a time of highly divisive and polarized politics. First, let’s understand the plain meaning of the law: if a man has two wives (not a current Jewish practice anywhere, I believe) and loves one but not the other, he can’t disregard normative inheritance law in favor of the children of the beloved wife.
That’s because the first-born gets a double portion of the inheritance, so that he can in turn become the head of the family when the father dies. This is, quite literally, a law that preserves patriarchy, but in its context, perhaps it’s not as unfair as it seems, since the first-born had additional responsibilities along with privileges.
If you’re now thinking, “but wait! didn’t Jacob favor Joseph, the son of his beloved wife Rachel?,” well, you’re right on target, but hold that thought for a moment.
What’s striking about this law is how it explicitly acknowledges and seeks to prevent the destructive effects of someone feeling unfairly cut off from their due. Again, in our worldview it might not be seen as perfectly egalitarian for the later-born sons (and never mind the daughters!) to receive less than the first born, but in the world of ancient Israel, this was the norm, and a system that allowed for family patriarchs to provide for and protect the clan. Arbitrarily favoring one son over the other would tear families apart. In fact, that’s precisely what happened when Jacob favored Joseph over his older sons- they threw him into the pit and sold him into slavery, not the intended result, I would imagine.
Whether or not this law is a response to the emotional failings of the patriarchs in Genesis, remembering what happened to Joseph, how he was resented by others and the pain that brought to the entire family, gives us a powerful image for the present day. Here in America, there are people on all sides of the political spectrum who feel cut off from their birthright, not given access to what they feel is their due as Americans. On the left you have Black Lives Matters taking to the streets to demand fairness in justice and opportunity; on the right you have whole geographic areas where the white working class has been devastated by deindustrialization, poverty and the neglect of the coastal elites. Social change has left many people with traditional religious values feeling unsure of their place in a rapidly evolving legal and moral landscape, while other groups, such as transgender men and women, are urgently demanding recognition and rights as equal citizens.
It’s not picking sides in the culture wars to say that there are lots and lots of people in America who feel like the child of the unloved mother, at loss to say what happened to their birthright and mad as hell about it. Taking the metaphor one step further, we can react like Joseph’s brothers- with tremendous resentment and anger- or we can try to figure how how to share greater blessings with all.
It’s going to be very hard to address the pain in our country, but if we don’t figure how how to make our fellow citizens feel loved equally and treated fairly, we’re headed, like Joseph, down into a dark pit. Fixing the conflict in our national family is going to require hearing each other with compassion and setting aside prejudices of right and left, color and sexuality, religion and ideology. It’s going to require seeing each other as brothers and sisters, not as deplorable and not as evil, but as children of the Living God.
P.S. See here for a good explanation of how this law hearkens back to the Genesis story, and others have discussed this as well.
The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.