Public corruption. Saying one thing and doing another. Public grandstanding vs private dishonesty . The kind of social ills that spell the decaying of a society. The crumbling social mores will turn into an avalanche and bring about the end of civilization as we know it!
Well, think what you will, but this week’s parasha certainly has all this and more. Family relationships, how to treat neighbors, lost oxen, forbidden sexual involvements, pawnshops and pledges. Ki Titze brings it all in a bit of a grab bag, carrying the most laws stated than other Torah portion. It’s all about how to strengthen that social fabric. The parasha itself is a little random, as Moses’ literal deadline approaches. It’s like how you know that the moving van is coming soon, and you still have a lot to accomplish, so you just start throwing unrelated things into a box to sort out later. Or, um, so I’ve heard.
There are some passages in the parasha that capture this idea of threats to a community’s social fabric. They may not look like they’re connected, but I believe they are. In one, we read about ethical business practice: “You should not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller. You should not have in your house alternate measures, a larger and a smaller. You must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that Adonai your God is giving you. For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to Adonai your God.” (Deut. 26:13-15)
Fair enough. Straightforward, clear. Be an honest business owner. Just after that, we read, “Remember what Amalek did to you after you left Egypt….you shall blot out the memory of Amalek…do not forget!” (Deut. 17-19). For the moment let’s leave aside the concept of don’t forget to remember, or remember to forget, and focus on the Amalekites. We also read this paragraph on the Shabbat before Purim, because Haman was an Amalekite. But this reference is to what happened on the journey out of Egypt. We’re long past that now; in fact, forty years past that. It seems like this is just stuck there after all the other social justice and personal family laws. Who were the Amalekites anyway, and why invoke their name here?
The truth is, the Amalekites fought dirty, and everyone knew it. They attacked from the rear, picking off the weak and the elderly, the stragglers who were most vulnerable. Why would these two passages be next to each other, first about honest business dealings and then about nasty marauding fighters?
There are social threats from within and from outside. Dishonest and unscrupulous business dealings also pick out the most vulnerable in society. They prey on those least able to shoulder the losses of scams and fraud. When a society has stopped trying to root out such evildoers from their midst, (which the Torah keeps telling us to do), society can begin to crumble from within. We have only to look at the burst bubbles and houses of cards that our economy is still trying to rebuild from to see what ensues when the people who are supposed to be keeping their eyes on the ball, blink. Or worse, intentionally look away.
This is no less threatening to a just society than the opportunistic picking off of the stragglers in battle. The Amalekites did that to us in the past. To what extent are we doing this to ourselves today? If we tolerate the internal marauding, perhaps we become even less able to withstand the external kind.
These Biblical laws show us how to protect those that need it most, not because we’re pushovers. It’s what makes for good business and a just society. This is not a model that says, “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine, too.” Or, “I made what I made, you’re on your own.” This is a social model that, in its very essence, outlines ways to keep a community strong by looking out for one another, so we’re able to look forward together. When that sort of system is in place, there won’t be any stragglers to pick off by unscrupulous, nasty marauders. We’ll be taking care of them ourselves.
Be on the lookout for Amalek, who can be within our midst, too. Don’t forget. Don’t forget.