Acharei Mot and Kedoshim are two remarkable parashiot. Kedoshim, literally about holy ways of behaving, beginning with “You (the people) shall be holy, because I (God) am holy.” This was said to the entire community, and what follows is a long and seemingly disjointed list of “don’ts” – Don’t defraud your neighbor, don’t insult the deaf, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t profit by the blood of your neighbor, leave food for the needy, and more. (Leviticus 19)
Certainly, these are hallmarks of a seriously deficient society in terms of moral and ethical behavior. This part of Leviticus is telling us how to build a righteous community, one that is holy because God is holy, and God is telling us to do it. But there is a verse in Acharei Mot, a chapter back, that sets it all up: I am Adonai your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their laws. (Leviticus 18:2-3)
Don’t be like them. Don’t be like those Egyptians. And what did those Egyptians do? They enslaved. They oppressed. They took advantage of an entire people through force and cruelty. They tried to beat the identity out of them. Ultimately, the hallmark of a righteous society, as far as Leviticus is concerned, is “don’t oppress”. Egypt is the code, the symbol, for unethical, immoral behavior of a nation. This is such a powerful, underlying theme that we read about it 36 times in the entire Torah; we were slaves, we were oppressed, so don’t do it to anybody else. Don’t take advantage of the vulnerable and needy. Just don’t. Don’t do it on a one-to-one basis, like keeping wages from a laborer, and don’t do it on a national level, like stripping an entire group of their rights.
We live in a time where there is a great deal of talk about oppression – who is oppressed, who is the oppressor. Are the needy to be left to fend for themselves? Do we keep an entire group within our borders at a disadvantage because of their income, and do we slam the door on those beyond our borders? Of course, people from all sides of an issue will find their Biblical proof texts to show they’re right, but if you’re using the Hebrew Bible as foundational text, well, it’s hard to overestimate the weight of an idea that is repeated so often: don’t oppress the vulnerable, because you remember what it was like to be oppressed.
Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) said that “nor shall you follow their laws” means that if you get used to following the customs of the oppressors, you will eventually be ruled by those customs. Their practices will become yours. You will lose yourself in their customs, and will become as morally bereft as they are. Don’t be like Egypt. Just don’t.