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Parshat Kedoshim

The connection between loving the ger and weights and measures 

Parshat Kedoshim is full of curious juxtapositions. The commandment to love the ger (stranger, foreigner, or convert) ends with the explanation, “for you were geirim (strangers) in the land of Egypt, I am the Lord your God.” (19, 34) The following commandment deals with weights and measures and the obligation to be honest and diligent in business. The explanation given for this commandment is, “I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt.” (19, 36) 

From the juxtaposition it seems that our relationship with Egypt and our time there is multifaceted. The commandment to “love him as yourself,” referring to the ger, is directed at the people’s experience of xenophobia and loneliness in Egypt, and the empathy and solidarity they should have learned to feel for others in a similar situation as a result. Even after returning to their land, their family, and their friends, a person who was once cut off from their home should be able to identify with someone else who is in their own personal exile. Yet this is not the only important lesson one should learn from exile. Exile also helps one understand what sets them apart. In exile one learns to distinguish what is different and what is unique, which is an important step in developing an identity and ethos. That ethos helps one to rise above, see further, and feel belonging and pride. 

This is true for both national exile and personal, individual exile. The Mishnah in teaches that “you should exile yourself to a place of Torah.” As the Tiferet Yisrael commentary explains: 

“The language of exile means he should leave his father and mother and family and all his creature comforts, and go to a place where he is lacking all these things. And even though this departure is as difficult for him as it is for a baby who is disconnected from his mother’s bosom, it is for his own good, for this is something that enables a person’s success. Just like grass will not flourish in the place it was first planted, but rather the gardener must come and uproot it from the place it was first seeded and plant it in a different place, so too a person will not succeed, be it in his character, in Torah, [and in his honor], unless it is in a place that is not the place he was born.” (Tiferet Yisrael, Boaz, Chapter IV, 2) 

The ability to grow and distinguish oneself goes hand in hand with distance from what is familiar and comfortable. The distance that leaves no room for comfort and complacency is a wakeup call; it makes a person try harder to succeed. It gives a person the space necessary for new ideas to take root and for them to develop their own independent voice.

Indeed, the verses in our parsha that reference the redemption from Egypt point out very specific values that tie into that experience. The commandment to love the ger is related to the identification we should feel with the experience of the exile. As Ramban explains: 

And also [regarding] “you should love him as yourself,” (verse 34) which refers to the ger. The explanation [of this commandment] is that he should love both of them equally in his mind, for sometimes a person loves his fellow in certain ways, [for example] he will do good for him in regards to wealth, but not in regards to wisdom and the like. But if he were to love him in everything then he would want to do good for his fellow that he loves in regards to wealth and possessions and honor and knowledge and wisdom. And not just so that he is equal to him, but rather his heart will desire that he will always be greater than him in everything that is good. And the scripture commands that the pettiness of jealousy should not be in his heart. (Ramban, Vayikra 19, 17) 

Ramban does not think that the commandment to love the ger is unique, based on an obligation to show solidarity with the plight of a stranger in a strange land. Rather, he thinks that it is the perfect complement to the commandment to “love your fellow as yourself.” These commandments obligate every person to go out of their way in order to do good for others- to give them a chance to have a home, a family, and a community, as well as access to higher education and health care. Yet according to Ramban, for the most part the commandment is not directed at our actions, but rather our hearts. We are supposed to encourage the foreigner and convert to grow on their own, beyond the goodness we wish to provide for them. A person must find the ability to see those under their care as independent people with their own abilities and aspirations. We are not meant to shower these people with pity or compassion, but rather the opposite- we are supposed to respect each one as their own person. Instead of loading them down with our own expectations we are meant to help build them up so they can achieve their goals.


The second commandment linked to the exodus from Egypt is to be precise with weights and measures. As the Sifra explains: 

“You shall not be unrighteous in judgment.” [verse 35] If this refers to the courts then it has already been stated [in verse 15]. If so then why does it say, “You shall not be unrighteous in judgment, in quantifying, in weight, and in measurement?” It teaches that one who measures is called a judge, that if he lies about measurements it is called unrighteous, hated and abhorred, cursed and abominable. And it causes five things: it makes the land impure, desecrates the Name [of God], removes the Shechinah, causes Israel to fall by the sword, and causes them to be exiled from their land. (Sifra Kedoshim Parsha 3, 5) 

According to the Sifra the Torah compares the obligation a vendor in the market has to weigh everything precisely with the obligation that a judge has to weigh both sides of the case fairly. The statement that “one who measures is called a judge” is powerful indeed. Yes, a person weighing apples for sale in the market is performing an action with religious implications; he has to run his business faithfully and with integrity. But the Sifra’s portrayal goes far beyond this to describe the vendor like a judge. It’s hard to exaggerate the significance of this comparison and its ideological ramifications. Judges are considered to be partners with God in making justice. We are told that the Shechinah is present in the court. The judge is commanded to be cautious because his decision is like the word of God, and so it must be precise and clear.

The comparison between the judge and the merchant is based on two ideas that the midrash takes for granted, but we would do well to take to heart. The first and more apparent is that the presence of the Shechinah is dependent on our actions, all our actions. Even our petty, daily business interactions have far-reaching religious consequences. The second idea is perhaps more novel, it shatters all assumptions we have about social classes and hierarchies. The comparison sees no difference between a judge who goes to work in a suit and tie and a simple blue collar worker who may not even have a basic education. These people are at opposite ends of the social spectrum and yet both of them, and perhaps everyone between them, are faced with the same dilemmas and conflicts, and their decisions carry weight. Perhaps they are not so different after all. 

The Torah juxtaposes these two ideas- the obligation to see and treat the ger with respect and dignity and the commandment that raises the vendor in the market to the level of a judge. Together they present us with a clear idea on how we are meant to view our fellow men and women. Both subjects are tied to different aspects our Egyptian exile, which teaches us that there is a connection between what we are meant to learn from our time in Egypt and what we are meant to do as a result of our redemption from Egypt. We did not learn these ideas from the Egyptians; we developed these insights to set ourselves apart. And so, even when we are in our own land we must remember that we are not Egyptians. The principle insight is that people are people, no matter what their social status is. The social and financial gaps are merely illusions.

These commandments teach us that we are obligated to treat every person, no matter who they are, with respect and dignity. The chronological order of the events that are provided as the reasons behind these commandments offers us one further insight. In order to see every person as deserving of dignity we must first see ourselves as deserving of dignity, no matter what situation we are in.

Sat, March 24 2018 8 Nisan 5778