With Passover peeking over the horizon, while I was busy making final preparations to fulfill the obligation of conducting the Seder, two Biblical pronouncements came to mind. The first one, “And God said to Abram, know with certainty that your descendants will be strangers in a strange land not theirs, and will be slaves there, afflicted for four hundred years.” (Genesis 15:13), which segues to the second, “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9).
Since the cornerstone of the Seder is the recounting of events from the time the Israelites left Canaan, settled in Egypt, suffered enslavement and were ultimately freed during the Exodus, why all the fuss about how to treat the stranger?
The answer rests in the fact that on Passover we are reminded that Hebrews were the archetypal stranger, aliens dwelling in the Land of Egypt. The Torah’s injunction, “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt”, warns us against doing harm to the ger (stranger). Because that directive appears in the Torah no less than thirty-six times, it is clearly a message of great import and one which we are instructed to pass on to those who follow us. To add weight to that command the Torah further amplifies it with an instruction of non-discrimination, “You shall have the same law for the stranger as for the native-born.”
The Haggadah’s narrative recounts how an ancient tribe of Israelites, which we now call Jews, journeyed from freedom to slavery, and then to final redemption. Their arduous trek was precipitated by a severe famine which had descended upon their country, Canaan. Egypt, its neighbor to the south, was awash in a sea of grain. Jacob, along with his brothers and their families, traveled to Egypt to obtain food because of its scarcity in Canaan. Their migration was during the reign of Egypt’s Hyksos Dynasty, a time when hatred of the stranger was the oldest of passions, going back to tribalism and the prehistory of civilization.
Through a series of circumstances Jacob’s son, Joseph, rose to become the second most powerful man in Egypt next to Pharaoh. And because Joseph had Pharaoh’s trust, his family of strangers were welcomed and allowed to settle in Egypt but only after Pharaoh personally inspected their credentials. Joseph, well versed in the ways of royal court, anticipated Pharaoh’s concerns about his family’s ability to support themselves, so he instructed his brothers to tell him they were ‘keepers of cattle’, when in fact they were shepherds, a vocation considered an abomination by the Egyptians sitting in Pharaoh’s court. Although Joseph had previously advised Pharaoh privately that his family were shepherds, Pharaoh’s concern was less about their occupation than it was about their ability to remain financially independent. Once satisfied with their financial viability, Pharaoh welcomed them to his kingdom and beneficently awarded them the ‘best of the land’ on which to graze their cattle and made them supervisors over his herdsmen.
The case in point is that Joseph’s family came as strangers and were initially treated kindly, by Egypt’s ruler. Therefore, we too should do whatever we can to help the stranger who arrives at our door because, as the Haggadah reminds us, we too were strangers in Egypt. It is not insignificant that, even though it was Joseph who sponsored them, they still had to undergo Pharaoh’s screening. And despite their desperate straits as refugees fleeing the scourge of hunger, Jacob and his family were respectful of dina d’malchuta dina, obedience to the civil law of the country to which they entered. In today’s vernacular, they entered Egypt legally.
In time, when Joseph was gathered to his ancestors and a new Pharaoh arose, who “did not know” or chose not to know Joseph, the ‘strangers’ were no longer welcome. The reason for that unfortunate turn of events was because the Jews had increased in numbers and retained their distinctive culture. For those reasons, the new Pharaoh regarded them as a potential threat. Consequently, under his reign, they were increasingly ill-treated, oppressed and eventually harnessed to the burdensome yoke of slavery.
The contrast of how the Jews were treated by the two Pharaohs is striking. But ironically the meaning of, “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in Egypt”, can be interpreted paradoxically in two different ways.
On the one hand, it is to remind us that the kindness bestowed upon Joseph’s family by Pharaoh when his family arrived as strangers should be used as a blueprint of how we should treat the stranger. On the other hand we are instructed to remember what it felt like to have been ill-treated and enslaved by a new and cruel Pharaoh. His behavior exemplifies how we are not to treat the stranger. It seems to me that the two directives, treating the stranger kindly and not ill-treating him, are two sides of the same coin. But whether the coin lands heads or tails, it matters not if times are good or bad, neither does skin color, religion or ethnicity alter the fact that strangers are to be treated kindly, not because they are made in your image or mine, but in the image of God. Hag Kasher V’Sameach.