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The Torah View on The Rights of Victims

From the Garden of Eden onward, the Torah is not supportive of those who seek to avoid responsibility for their actions. The mantle of victimhood that Adam and Eve tried on was ripped away by a G-d who seems just as angry about their attempts to blame someone else, than he was about eating the fruit in the first place!

But what if someone is truly a victim? Ah, that is different. The Torah stands firmly for the undertrodden and the oppressed – it is a core reason why we had to be slaves in Egypt, so that we could better understand what it is like to be powerless. We are always supposed to be considerate of others, especially those who have been wronged.

This is a consistent theme – so consistent that the Torah takes great pains to tell us to respect the rights of the people our ancestors victimized.

Here are the three key examples:

You will then be close to the Ammonites; do not harass them or start a fight with them. For I will not give any part of the land of the Ammonites to you as a possession; I have assigned it as a possession to the descendants of Lot. (Deut. 2:19)

Do not harass the Moabites or provoke them to war. For I will not give you any of their land as a possession; I have assigned Ar as a possession to the descendants of Lot. (Deut. 2:9)

You will be passing through the territory of your kin, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. Though they will be afraid of you, be very careful not to provoke them. For I will not give you of their land so much as a foot can tread on; I have given the hill country of Seir as a possession to Esau. (Deut. 2:4-5)

No other people get this special treatment, the language that says we get nothing of theirs. Ishmael, or Avraham’s other sons are all fair game. But not these peoples. There is something special about these three – really, these two: Lot (Ammon and Moab are his descendants), and Esau.

I think the answer is given to us plainly. Lot was sent away by his only family:

From Egypt, Abram went up into the Negeb, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with Lot. Now Abram was very rich in cattle, silver, and gold. …Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support them staying together; for their possessions were so great that they could not remain together. And there was quarreling between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and those of Lot’s cattle. … Abram said to Lot, “Let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are kinsmen. Is not the whole land before you? Let us separate: if you go north, I will go south; and if you go south, I will go north. (Gen. 13:6-9)

Avraham sends Lot away because they both prefer to have their wealth than to keep the family together (I wrote about it here). Why didn’t Avraham think to solve the problem of limited land by reducing his assets? After all, if there were fewer cattle to graze, resources would not have been strained to the point of disputes within the family.

It seems to me that our forefather put his material wealth ahead of the relationship with his nephew. Had they stayed together, it could have led to a great future for the descendants of both, instead of the catastrophe for Lot that it became.

Esau is a parallel case, with almost identical language:

Esau took his wives, his sons and daughters, and all the members of his household, his cattle and all his livestock, and all the property that he had acquired in the land of Canaan, and went to another land because of his brother Jacob. For their possessions were too many for them to dwell together, and the land where they sojourned could not support them because of their livestock. So Esau settled in the hill country of Seir—Esau being Edom. (Gen. 36:6)

The text seems to be telling us that if Jacob had wanted to accommodate Esau alongside him he had that option. But Jacob chose not to do it.

So both Lot and Esau were rejected, perhaps even victimized, by their family member who sent them to another land because they preferred their possessions to their relationship.

The Torah tells us that we cannot – must not – take any of the land that the rejected family members settled in after they were sent away. By expelling our family from us, we lost the right to harass or take anything more from them ever again.

[an @iwe and @kidcoder work]

Comments are welcome!

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