September 1, 2017
This week we read about the prohibition on intermarrying with the Ammonites and Moabites (the descendants of Lot and his daughters). “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the LORD; none of their descendants, even in the tenth generation, shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the LORD.” (Devarim 23:4) The Torah explains the reason for the singling out these two peoples: “because they did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam son of Beor, from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse you.” (Devarim 23:5) While the Egyptians, who actually enslaved us for centuries and oppressed us violently, are allowed to convert to Judaism and marry into the Jewish people, eventually, and are even singled out for a special prohibition against “abhorring” them (ibid, verse 8), the Moabites and Ammonites are permanently excluded, though it seems their only crimes were a lack of hospitality, and a failed attempt to curse us. Rashi explains that the reason the Egyptians are not to be abhorred, while the Moabites and Ammonites are, is that unlike the Moabites and Ammonites, who refused to give us food and water, the Egyptians took us in and provided for us when we were hungry. However badly they may have treated us subsequently, their initial kindness is not to be forgotten.
It seems from this that the failure to share food and water is a crime greater even than violent oppression, or that, conversely, hospitality is so great a virtue, that it can overshadow the most heinous crimes. We know that one of the salient characteristics of the city of Sodom, for which it was punished with fire from heaven, was selfishness and an antipathy to hospitality. The ethos of Sodom, according to Pirkei Avot was “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” Sodom’s great crime then was not, as is commonly believed, in the realm of sexual behavior, but rather in their total lack of chesed (loving-kindness). A society without kindness cannot survive, any more than a society without justice. Tellingly, Lot and his daughters, the ancestors of the inhospitable Ammonites and Moabites, were refugees from this city of Sodom, spared from the fate of their neighbors by the merit of Lot’s hospitality. Though his descendants apparently lost the tradition, Lot, had learned the ethic of hospitality from Avraham and Sarah, whose heroic hospitality remains an example for Jews to this day.
During the fast-approaching holiday season, as we pray to God for a sweet and healthy year, let us strive to deserve God’s favor by making sure that our own celebrations reflect the values of our ancestors Avraham and Sarah. If after praying to God to forgive our sins, we were to go home and have a nice meal with our friends, without inviting the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan, we would embodying the values of Ammon and Moab (Heaven forbid).
Let us instead make sure our guest lists include not only family and close friends, but people who might not otherwise have a holiday meal to go to. To facilitate this, if you have extra space at your Yom Tov table, or if you are seeking hospitality yourself, I encourage you to let me know, and we will try to match people appropriately.
Lastly, our prayers are with those in Houston and elsewhere in the Gulf Coast region who have been so hard-hit by Hurricane Harvey. One way we can emulate Avraham and Sarah (and shun the example of the Ammonites and Moabites) is by providing food and water (both literal and metaphorical) for the victims of this disaster. There are many organizations doing important work on the ground in Texas right now to help survivors. A few efforts you might want to consider supporting are:
The United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston have been hard-hit by the Hurricane, and are soliciting donations to help them rebuild.
The Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York and the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Houston are teaming up to make disaster recovery loans available to people in the Greater Houston area.
You can donate by going to
http://whenimmobile.com/hfls/ and putting “disaster response loans” in the note.
You can find a list of more ways to help in this article from Texas Monthly magazine.
Rabbi Garth Silberstein