Torah Readers Reflections

The Stranger

What is so special about not oppressing the stranger that the Torah mentions it at least 36 different times. The Torah must be trying to tell us something very fundamental if this commandment is repeated so many times. Why are we commanded to remember that we were strangers in Egypt? What is special about strangers in our midst?
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Have you ever been to a place and felt like an outsider? For instance, I’ve attended various different synagogues over the years and one thing is consistent; when you walk in people stare at you as if you just came from a different planet. Even more so when you actually look different from the people who are there, for instance if I suddenly decide to visit an ultra-orthodox synagogue.Sometimes, you will find one or two people who go out of their way to welcome you, invite you in, invite you to their homes for a meal and really make you feel comfortable and welcomed.


In fact, what these people are doing might be second nature to them but it is in fact one of the greatest mitzvot and one that God considers to be of the utmost importance -the laws against harming the stranger (ger), it is mentioned no less than 36 places and possibly up to 46 different places - there is some disagreement to the actual number as discussed in Talmud baba Metzia 59b. This law is mentioned twice in parashat Mishpatim sandwiching between it laws related to how to treat slaves, treatment of a widow and orphans, laws against taking interest on a loan, bribery, injustice and many other such social justice laws:


Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in Egypt. (Ex. 22:20)


Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger, because you were strangers in Egypt. (Ex. 23:9)


These verses appear as the first and the last of the civil laws listed in Mishpatim, obviously the Torah is indicating that there is something fundamental at stake in God’s vision of a just and gracious social vision.


The Hebrew word used here for stranger is “ger” - this is interpreted as a foreigner who makes his/her home amongst the Israelites - a permanent resident for all intents and purposes. In the Torah the word ger is often mentioned along with the poor, the orphan, the widow. On several occasions the Torah states: “You shall have the same law for the stranger as for the native born.” The stranger must be included in all aspects of society. However, the law goes further when it is related to the stranger: 


When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Lev. 19:33 - 34)


This appears in the same chapter as the commandment “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”. In Deutoromony Moses makes it clear that this is the attribute of God himself:


For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the Great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are strangers, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt.” (Deut. 10:17 - 19)


There appears to be two dimensions to this command. The first is political; The stranger is not surrounded by family, friends or people who are willing to come to their defense - they are practically defenseless as compared to the citizens surrounding them. The Torah warns against harming them since God himself is protector of those who have no one else to protect them.

The second reason is related to the physiological vulnerability of the stranger.  The stranger is a person who lives outside of the securities of home and belonging to a people. The stranger, as a person, feels alone and vulnerable. Throughout the Torah God is especially sensitive to the cry of the oppressed, the feelings of being rejected, the cry of the unheard.


Rabbi Hayim ibn Attar adds a further insight. It may be that the very sanctity that the Israelites feel as the children of the covenant may lead them to look down on those who lack similar lineage. Therefore they are commanded not to feel superior to the ger, but instead to remember the degradation their ancestors experienced in Egypt. Taking this approach, the commandement becomes one of humility in the face of a stranger.


Hatred of strangers - foreigners, is one of the oldest passions going back to tribalism. Throughout the Torah we see examples that the stranger has no rights in a foreign land, is abused and often fear for their lives. The pages of history are stained with blood of ethnic or racial conflict. So it was in ancient times and so it is now in our lives. To this day we are witness to politicians criminalizing strangers, aliens, foreigners - calling them murders, rapists, criminals and the age old excuse - they are taking away our jobs. So it is in America, Europe and other civilized countries. No measure of enlightenment prevented the greatest ethnic cleansing and abuse of human rights of the stranger than the Holocaust, yet civilization doesn’t learn. We need look no further than the genocide in Balkans during the 1990’s. The incendiary statements by today’s politicians against minorities, against people who don’t look like them or see the world in their view are the foretellers of another catastrophe about to unfold.


To be a Jew is to be a stranger. From the time that Abraham was commanded to leave his home, up unto this day, Jews have almost always been strangers living in someone else's land. The Torah is insistent that the telling of the story of Passover should become an experience embedded in the permanent collective memory. A Jew should always know what it feels like to be a stranger, to be treated as a stranger and should therefore know how not to treat strangers.


In retrospect it is stunning how seriously the Torah took the concept of xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. It is as if the Torah were saying with the utmost clarity: It is not enough for one person here or there to show sympathy to the stranger; to eradicate hate of the stranger, it takes the full force of history, or a collective memory that is repeated again and again.


We know the heart - how the stranger feels - because we were once strangers. We stood where the stranger now stands, we know what it feels like to be unjustly dealt with, to have no rights, to be hated and despised. We know what it feels like to have no one to turn to, to be unwelcome in land that is not of our own. 


 “You know the heart of the stranger” because you were once the stranger. If you are human, so is he, if he is less than human, so are you. Jews are the world’s archetypal strangers in order that they might fight for the rights of the stranger; for those who have a different color of skin, for those who have a different culture, for those who don’t fit in and have nowhere else to turn to, because even though they are not created in your image, they are created in God’s image and it is God who hears the cry of the orphan, the widow, the poor those who have no voice and the stranger.


There is only one answer to the question, “Why should I not hate the stranger?”, and the answer is simple - Because I am the stranger. 



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