Stranger in a strange land


(The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.)

From The Jerusalem Post, January 31, 2008

Commentary on Torah parashat [Torah portion, in Israel's anciently decreed annual cycle of Torah readings] Mishpatim ["Righteous Ordinances", Exodus chapters 21-24: "Now these are the Ordinances/mishpatim . . . ."]

The most seminal occurrence in our [Israel's] history was undoubtedly the exodus from Egypt. Not only do we celebrate an annual week-long festival (Passover/Pessakh) as a re-enactment of being freed, but we also remember our exodus every Friday and on every religious festival when we sanctify the wine. Moreover, in the very first word of the Decalogue [i.e. , the Ten Commandments], the Almighty describes Himself (as it were) as the Lord who took the Hebrews out of Egypt. Indeed, the Egyptian experience is invoked to enforce the very infrastructure of our people's moral mission. As expressed by the Jewish-French philosopher Levinas, the moral fiber of a nation is revealed by the way in which it relates to the "stranger" or "other." As we see in our biblical reading, we are exhorted to demonstrate special sensitivity toward the stranger because we were oppressed and cheated strangers in the Land of Egypt.

Our Bible goes so far as to warn us in no less than 23 (or even 46) places not to behave insensitively toward the stranger (B.T. [Talmud - Babylonian Talmud], tractate Bava Metzia [Middle Gate] 49b). The Talmudic sages distinguish between monetary cheating (hona'a) and verbal oppression (lahatz), which includes even reminding a convert in passing of his gentile ancestry. The rabbis considered verbal abuse to be the greater crime, since money can be repaid (B.T. Bava Metzia 55b).

Why such heightened sensitivity toward the "stranger," who can be defined as either a ger tzedek - a righteous convert - or a ger toshav, a gentile whose commitment to the Seven Noahide Laws enables him to live in the Land of Israel together with the Jews? First of all, because the Jewish people have experienced the pain of being considered outsiders, aliens, strange and estranged. The very first Jew, Abraham, introduces himself to the people of Heth as "a resident alien." Moses names his first son Gershom because he was "a stranger in a strange land," and the Hebrews ("hapiru," pariahs) in Egypt saw how their different identity led first to their dehumanization and then to their decimation at the hands of an oppressive majority. The one who is different is often feared and usually denigrated; it is easy to see him as being less valuable and therefore "fair game" for the whims of a ruling class…

The Bible wants us to carry the pain of having been persecuted, of having been looked upon as inferior and unworthy, throughout our historical lives - so that we never do to anyone else what the Egyptians did to us. And the reasoning is simple: we are all children of the same God, so that no human dare view any other as strange or inferior.

So the Bible clearly teaches: "When a stranger dwells with you, a stranger in your land, do not cheat him. Like one of your [natural] citizens shall he be considered by you, that stranger who lives with you. You shall love him like yourself. I am the Lord your God" (Lev. 19:23, 24). You shall love him because he is like you, because each of you contains a portion of the same God. You are the stranger and he is you, because the same God bestowed on each of you the life force which makes you distinctively human. If you see him as being less than you today, he can see you as being less than him tomorrow; your humanity is inextricably bound up in his.

The 12th-century commentator Nahmanides (the Ramban) puts it a little differently. In effect he says to every individual: "Do not oppress the stranger because you think he has no one to defend him; remember how Pharaoh learned that God defends the stranger. God is the shield of the oppressed, the one who sees the tears of those who have no one else to give them comfort. God will save every person from the hands of those stronger than he. God will always hear the cries of the widow and the orphan, the pleas of those who have no one upon whom to rely except their Father in Heaven" (Ramban on Exodus 22:20).

I would take this one step further. God hears the stranger because God - no less than Israel - is the consummate stranger, the One who is wholly other, kadosh [holy, sanctified], forever apart. God is homeless in this world, waiting for us to make Him a home so that He may dwell among us. But God can only find His home among us if we leave room for every other human being. Only when we make this world into a loving home in which every human being can feel at home will God feel at home as well.

[To see the original article in the Jerusalem Post, click here:] Parashat Mishpatim: Stranger in a strange land | Jerusalem Post


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