In this week’s Torah reading, we have the first of many laws about the GER, stranger, alien resident, and, maybe, the convert. The Torah seems to really obsess over these people. Why? I think to understand the true intent we must change our perspective. To do that it helps to know the old anecdote about the Jew and the border guard:
Many years ago there was a Jewish workman who crossed the border between Poland and Russia every day. He was always pushing a wheelbarrow filled with dirt. The Polish border guard was sure that the Jew was smuggling something into Poland. So, he carefully sifted through the dirt every morning, but never found a thing. After years of this, the guard finally showed up in civilian clothes, and said to the Jew, ‘I retired yesterday, but I have to know what you’ve been smuggling all this time.’ The Jew smiled and said, ‘Wheelbarrows.’
The key to understanding is to get the right perspective of the problem. Most of our commentaries historically viewed the issue of the GER from the point of view of the GER.
The GER must be protected because he is defenseless and at the mercy of society, insist many rabbinic sources. Others would assume that the GER was a righteous convert, and deserved, not our pity, but our admiration for this bold move. The Ramban insists that we must protect the GER because God will show the GER the same protection we got in Egypt. Don’t hurt him because God will judge his case, and against you.
As Rav SR Hersch beautifully explains:
The text furthers two foundational societal concepts: The concept of total equality before the law and of love and kindness towards all members of society…Just law must be administered with the precept of equality…This spirit of equality must permeate the entire apparatus of governance…Parshat Mishpatim is dedicated to instilling this fundamental concept into the heart of Jewish society…Especially honor every human being as your equal.
Moses Mendelsohn pushed the empathy agenda:
Someone who was in distress, and God saved him, it is fitting that he will have mercy on all who enter into that distress, and so it is in the nature of the human spirit that one’s mercy is bestirred when he sees a fellow human undergoing suffering that he himself has felt in the past.
All of these ideas are admirable and uplifting, but I really think that the GER is the dirt in our anecdote (no insult intended) and we Jews are the wheelbarrows (no acclaim intended). It’s just a metaphor. We must look at this issue from the viewpoint of the Jews, not from the vantage of the GER.
Nechama Leibowitz pushes the agenda that we were slaves in Egypt so that we could be better rulers in the future:
The memory of bondage and exile is regarded here as acting as a protective shield against the evil impulses of dominion, the temptation to exploit and oppress on the part of the self-supporting respectable citizen, who himself was once a slave and exile, who now wishes to lord it over those who are now sojourners in his country.
God is adamant in the Brit Bein HaBetarim (Covenant Between the Parts, Breishit 15:9-21) that ‘your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there (v. 13). Why?
The most often found reasons usually contain these elements: 1)To strengthen the Jews’ trust in God, 2)To develop a close relationship with God, 3) To show the Jews the consequences of an over-zealous pursuit of materialism. Basically, to witness the great power of God and the corruption of most human societies. But we can build on those basics to arrive at the conclusion that this terrible experience was part of a pedagogic plan.
As Rav Kook taught:
While slavery did certainly cause some corrupt qualities, it also engendered the quality of submission and subservience to He Who is worthy of subservience, to be true servants of God, to be able to nullify one’s own will and ones own inclinations in order to accept the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, for which Am Yisrael are noted. Through this, they brought about and are destined to bring about great goodness for themselves and for the world…In order to achieve the sort of freedom that reveals our essence, we need the negation of aspects of the ego and individual wants. Revealing essence is connected to humility, openness, and listening.
There are also the personal benefits of kindness. As the Mayo Clinic Website concludes: Acts of kindness have been shown to increase self-esteem and feelings of empathy and compassion. Kindness can increase your sense of connectivity with others, which can directly affect loneliness, improve low mood and enhance relationships in general. Check it out: https://www.mayoclinichealthsystem.org/wellness/kindness
Before I go on I must inject a caveat. Can we really fathom the full scope of God’s plan? No way! ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the Eternal’ (Yeshayahu 55:8). However, our human limitations shouldn’t prevent us from humbly drawing certain conclusions. For instance: This historic experience of bondage and redemption, which we constantly draw upon (ZECHER L’YETZIAT MITZRAYIM) must inform our behavior and make us better, more caring human beings!!
In our souls and DNA is the memory of that experience, and we must draw the correct conclusion: Be a MENTCH! Therefore we can’t bring ourselves to oppress the GER in either words or actions.
Dr Jeremiah Unterman concludes that Jews have developed ‘Historical Empathy’, and adds:
We are part of a people that refuses to forget and we are bidden to create a moral memory. Memory can lead to vengeance and to the oppressed becoming the oppressors. That is a very natural tendency. The Torah goes out of its way to argue the opposite. Our historical experience should make us more empathic.
We must never hate, abuse or oppress the GER, because we once stood exactly where that GER stands today. We have remained the world’s ‘strangers’ in every society and civilization. So, in a certain sense when we fight for the GER, we fight for ourselves. Ultimately, we must conclude: Never hurt the GER, because the GER is ME!