Ki Tetze: Of Cloaks and Compassion

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ki Tetze

Dear Friends:

It’s a lovely day in the Hudson River Valley, and perhaps it’s
appropriate for Labor Day Weekend that our Torah portion, Ki Tetze,
includes laws pertaining to the relationship between rich and poor. In
Chapter 24 of the book of Dvarim, we find a link between the
historical experience of slavery in Egypt and the moral imperative of
defending those who are weakest and most marginal in society:

“You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless;
you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were
a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there;
therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.” (Dvarim/
Deuteronomy 24:17-18)

Rashi sees the first part of verse 17 as linked to an earlier warning
not to “pervert justice” in the case of a poor person: i.e., somone
who oppresses a widow or orphan would then be in violation of two
commandments, which lends extra weight to the idea that it’s precisely
the powerless who must be on the moral “radar screen” of the
community. (Cf. Dvarim 16:19) Rashi goes on to say two amazing things,
which I want to explain in reverse order.

First, Rashi interprets “remember that you were a slave in Egypt” as
meaning that the only reason we were redeemed from Egypt was to obey
the commandments of the Torah- even if they cause monetary loss. He
brings up monetary loss because of the second half of verse 17- “you
shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn.” Rashi (and other
commentaries) understand this to mean that one can’t take a widow’s
(presumably solitary) garment after she’s already defaulted on the
loan. Now it’s clear what he meant about “monetary loss:” even if you
lose the value of a poor person’s cloak, you cannot rob that person of
their only warmth just to satisfy a debt. You must let it go- it would
be unfair and cruel to let someone freeze just because they are too
poor to repay a loan .

So far, so good- the Torah teaches compassion even to the “repo man!”
However, I think there is another message built into the guidelines
for charitable economic dealings. To wit, the Torah could easily have
taught us not to take the poor person’s last possessions as a law by
itself- what does the experience of slavery in Egypt have to do with it?

To me, the Torah’s message is this: remember what it felt like to be
treated as an object, a means by which someone else is enriched or has
their needs met, regardless of one’s own needs or feelings. Slavery,
of course, is the ultimate objectification of human beings, who are
made into mere possessions, objects of someone else’s will. Taking a
poor debtor’s cloak doesn’t seem the same as forcing an entire nation
into brutal labor, but both involve cutting off one’s empathy for the
other, and disregarding their essential humanity.

Perhaps those of us who are fortunate enough to have been born in
North America have never experienced the kind of slavery that our
ancestors did, but all of us, at one time or another, have felt the
profound frustration and powerless rage that comes with being treated
as a number, case file, nameless customer, disrespected employee, or
victim of someone’s greed. Perhaps you’ve been in a situation where
was more convenient to blame you for a problem than to have a hard
discussion about what’s really going on in the office, or perhaps
someone chose to take advantage of you in a business transaction or
emotional relationship.

“Remember that you were a slave in Egypt”- that is, remember how bad
it felt to be treated as less than fully human, and don’t do that to
anybody else. Unfortunately, it’s impossible for flawed human beings
(which includes everybody reading and writing this paragraph) to be
perfectly empathetic at all times, so at this time of year, we reflect
on our deeds, both public and private, and attempt to do t’shuvah,
returning and repairing, when we have treated others as we would not
wish to be treated. All of us suffer the petty indignities of living
in a bureaucratic, hurried world, where people are capable of cruelty
and narcissism; the challenge is to stay in touch with the pain
without becoming callous or cynical. The Torah’s promise is that we
can transcend our experiences, and become people of genuine empathy,
compassion, and love- for this we were redeemed from Egypt.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- as usual, the first link leads to a summary of the Torah
portion, and further commentary, and the second link has the full text
of the Torah portion and haftarah.

P.P.S.- if you are at all interested in current events within the
Conservative movement, and some of the changes and controversies in
our midst, then these two links will make for very interesting
reading. The first is an article about the discussions regarding the
Movement’s stance on gay and lesbian inclusion (including ordination)
and the second is a reflection on a now-famous speech that the
outgoing Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary gave last
spring. Do read, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: