Abandoning the Scorecard Approach

Many of us have a scorecard-like approach to our interpersonal relationships. We consider how much we have done for the other fellow versus how much he has done for us, then we factor in how much aggravation, if any, he has caused us, and after doing the math we decide on the sort of relationship we will have.

In our mental record-keeping, any favors we might have received are often wiped out by the far greater acts of reciprocation on our part, while a negative experience, a slight or an insult can erase or at least balance out a long-ago act of kindness shown us.

What we perceive as a lack of gratitude on the part of an acquaintance or a neighbor, or even worse, repaying benevolence on our part with mistreatment, is often a cause of friction.

When it comes to family relationships, it’s calibrated even more finely. Understandably, if we are hurt by the words or actions of a family member, we view it as an act akin to treason. After all, our relatives are supposed to be paragons of good will, an endless source of kindness and compassion. When they fail to live up to expectations, all too often bitter feuds erupt and estrangement may result.

This week, the parashah teaches us to adopt the exact opposite approach.

Every year on Pesach, we delve at length into the horrific way the Egyptians treated Bnei Yisrael. Tossing newborn babies into the Nile, the king bathing in the blood of massacred children, the long decades of harsh enslavement and torture — the Egyptians were the symbol and epitome of cruelty and evil.

Yet the Torah orders us not to totally reject Egyptian converts who seek to marry into Am Yisrael; the third generation is permitted to do so. Chazal explain that this is because they served as our hosts bish’as ha’dchak: during a time of hunger and distress, Yaakov Avinu and the shevatim were permitted to settle there.

Using a human “scorecard,” one would say that any favors we received from the Egyptians have long since been erased by the many years of torture and abuse. Furthermore, the years of backbreaking work we did for them surely repaid any conceivable debt.

But it is clear from the Torah that gratitude is not something that one calculates, but is rather an obligation independent of any other aspects of a relationship. No matter how badly the Egyptians treated us, we are obligated to be grateful to them for the favor they did, and therefore the third generation is permitted to marry into Am Yisrael.

The Torah also instructs us to allow a third-generation Edomite convert to marry into Am Yisrael, “for he is your brother.”

Neither Esav nor his descendants ever exhibited brotherly conduct towards us; on the contrary, at every opportunity they sought to kill us.

But Esav is still “your brother”!

Rambam states that this comes to teach us that no matter how much harm a relative inflicts on us, no matter how egregious the relative’s behavior is, we still have an obligation to treat him as a relative.

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In contrast, direct male descendants of Amon and Moav are banned forever from marrying into our nation, and the passuk gives us the reason:

“This is because they did not greet you with bread and water when you were on the way out of Egypt, and also because they hired Bilaam … to curse you.”

The first reason is puzzling, as some of the Moabites did in fact provide food to Bnei Yisrael shortly before they entered Eretz Yisrael — at a price, but it was still food.

The Maharsha explains that as descendants of Lot, they should have shown gratitude to Bnei Yisrael for what Avraham Avinu did for their ancestor Lot and given the food for free.

Yet one may wonder: Is failing to give away free bread and water such a terrible sin as to deserve eternal condemnation?

An explanation of the Chasam Sofer is that if they had given the food for free, they would have merited the same treatment as the Egyptians; despite all that Moav and Amon did to us, we would have had to be grateful to them for being there for us in a time of distress. But by charging for the food, they lost that privilege.

The Zera Shimshon (it is a well-known segulah to learn from this sefer, as its childless author begged that it be studied) offers the following fascinating explanation:

Feeding Bnei Yisrael would have been a great zechus, through which they could have partially rectified their sin. They could have argued, however, that the reason they didn’t do so was financial constraints: after all, to feed such a huge number of people is a hefty undertaking. For this the Torah states, “…also because they hired Bilaam … to curse you.”

If they found the huge sums of money to pay Bilaam, they obviously weren’t worried about finances. In that case, selling food to Bnei Yisrael was intended as a commercial, for-profit enterprise, one that does not provide them with a much-needed zechus.