Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
The theme of relationships – how to build them, how to keep them intact, and how to heal them in the event that they are damaged – is a pervading theme of this week’s Torah portion. In one particular verse, a very strict limitation is placed upon interpersonal relationships. The Torah explains the prohibition in a clear statement of rationale:
An Ammonite or Moavite shall not enter into the Congregation of God; to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the Congregation of God forever; Because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil’am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you. Nevertheless the Almighty, your God, would not listen to Bil’am; but the Almighty, your God, turned the curse into a blessing to you, because the Almighty your God loved you. You shall not seek their peace nor their prosperity all your days forever. (Deuteronomy 23:4-7)
Amon and Moav were raised in a strange family unit: they were both the products of incest. Their mothers were sisters who got their father drunk, and seduced him in his stupor. (Gen. 19:30-38)
Lot, Avraham’s nephew, saw his world crumble around him. His first tragic mistake was taking leave of Avraham: He should have learned enough from his uncle to achieve a reconciliation between the shepherds of his flocks and Avraham’s shepherds. Avraham in his wisdom realized that there was only one solution for the conflict, and suggested a parting of the ways. (Gen. 13:7-9) Lot travels eastward to Sodom.
There is something terribly wrong with a person who would leave the tent of Avraham and choose a place like Sodom. Sodom
‘looked good’for he was motivated by aspirations of wealth and power. But it didn’t take long for Sodom to be destroyed, his home and possessions along with it. Even his wife was lost. He escaped with only the clothes on his back and his two daughters. These daughters each present Lot with sons, Moav and Amon.
These sons enter the world with a stigma: Their father/grandfather has made countless bad decisions, and their mothers instigated incest with their own father. They are emotionally damaged men: hurt, angry, full of resentment. Yet the Torah teaches a remarkable lesson: These nations are forbidden to the Jewish people; descendents of Amon and Moav are not to be accepted as converts to Judaism. But why? Not because they are genetically inferior but “because they did not meet you with bread and with water on the way, when you came out of Egypt; and because they hired against you Bil’am the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse you.”
The second half of the verse is understandable: They conspired to curse the Jews, reason enough for maintaining a healthy distance. But that’s not the main reason. Rather, it is their failure to greet us in the desert with food and drink that illustrates their lack of character.
Note: Lot grew up in Avraham’s tent. Despite Lot’s possible feelings of abandonment, despite Moav and Amon’s feelings of rejection, despite the dysfunctional family that produced Moav and Amon, they should have known better, and behaved as any relative of Avraham knew was the proper way to deal with others – certainly with relatives.
They are expected to behave as Avraham would have, to greet travelers with food and drink. In this instance, the Torah is unforgiving. We are not meant to summon up “understanding” or “empathy” for those who are products of a dysfunctional home, children born of twisted relationships, the products of incest who may have suffered ridicule, who could have blamed their parents for all their problems. The Torah underscores the power of a positive education and example to overcome negative feelings of resentment and anger. Despite their origins and upbringing, the descendents of Lot had the ability to choose kindness. They were endowed with free will.
The lesson for all of us is unavoidable: Human beings – children and adults -are often tempted to blame others for their own shortcomings, but the Torah does not allow us to place the blame with our upbringing, our parents or ancestors, or other situations beyond our control. Every human being has Free Will; this means that, along with any negative experiences, there are positive lessons to be learned from the challenges in our past.
The responsible individual must choose to reject the negative and distill positive lessons from any given experience. Cycles of abuse and pain can and must be broken, as the case of Amon and Moav illustrates: Even many generations down the line, we have the right to expect moral behavior on the part of Lot’s descendents. Despite Lot’s many failings, despite the challenging background, God has expectations of those raised in the Tent of Avraham. Amon and Moav, as descendents of Lot, had so many positive lessons to learn. They were punished for choosing to focus on their own feelings and their own anger. For their choices, and not for their history, they are forever banned from the Congregation of God.
Each and every one of us, emotional scars and personal failures notwithstanding, is called upon by the laws of the Torah to make a similar choice. We are reminded, through the unlikely example of Amon and Moav, that we are all descendents of someone who grew up in the tents of Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivka, Ya’akov, Rachel and Leah. There is greatness within our collective memory, and therefore within our abilities and our selves. Focusing on anger and failure can easily develop into self-fulfilling, negative prophesies, leading to fractured homes and decimated communities. Alternatively, we can each make the conscious choice to learn positive lessons from our negative experiences, and raise ourselves as individuals and families to the higher moral ground prepared for us by our ancestors.
In Tune with Torah this week = renewing our determination to choose rightly despite any negative influences.