Yehuda Lave
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Power of the bible to command us to love the stranger

There are commands that leap off the page of the Bible by their sheer moral power. So it is in the case of the social legislation in Torah section Parsha Mishpatim.

Do not ill-treat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt

To not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger {literally, “you know the soul of a stranger”}, because you were strangers in Egypt

The Bible section read last week in the Synagogue, called Parsha Mishpatim contains many laws The repetition throughout the bible is remarkable of social justice – against taking advantage of a widow or orphan, for example, or charging interest on a loan to a fellow member of the community, against bribery and injustice, and so on. The first and last of these laws, however, is the repeated command against harming a ger, a “stranger.” Clearly something fundamental is at stake in the Torah’s vision of a just and gracious social order.

The Sages noted the repeated emphasis on the stranger in biblical law. According to Rabbi Eliezer, the Torah “warns against the wronging of a ger in thirty-six places”

“You shall have the same law for the stranger as for the native-born. Not only must the stranger not be wronged; he or she must be included in the positive welfare provisions of the Israelite society. But the law goes beyond this; the stranger must be loved:

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 L‑rd your G‑d.

This provision appears in the same chapter as the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Later, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses makes it clear that this is the attribute of G‑d Himself:

“For the L‑rd your G‑d is G‑d of G‑ds and Lord of Lords, the great G‑d, 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.

What is the logic of the command? The most profound commentary is that given by the Ramban (one of our greatest commentators):

The correct interpretation appears to me to be that He is saying: do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, thinking as you might that none can deliver him out of your hand; for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I saw the oppression with which the Egyptian oppressed you, and I avenged your cause on them, because I behold the tears of such who are oppressed and have no comforter…Likewise, you shall not afflict the widow and the orphan for I will hear their cry, for all these people do not rely upon themselves but trust in Me.

And in another verse He added this reason:

…for you know what it feels like to be a stranger because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. That is to say, you know that every stranger feels depressed, and is always sighing and crying, and his eyes are always directed towards G‑d, therefore He will have mercy upon him even as He showed mercy to you {and likewise He has mercy on all who are oppressed}.

According to the Ramban, the command has two dimensions. The first is the relative powerlessness of the stranger. He or she is not surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, a community of those ready to come to their defense. Therefore the Torah warns against wronging them because G‑d has made Himself protector of those who has no one else to protect them. This is the First dimension of the command.

The second reason, is the psychological vulnerability of the stranger (we recall Moses’ own words at the birth of his first son, while he was living among the Midianites: “I am a stranger in a strange land. The stranger is one who lives outside the normal securities of home and belonging. He or she is, or feels, alone – and, throughout the Torah, G‑d is especially sensitive to the sigh of the oppressed, the feelings of the rejected, the cry of the unheard. That is the emotional dimension of the command.

Dislike of the unlike is as old as mankind. This fact lies at the very heart of the Jewish experience.

Undoubtedly, though, the most serious cruelty – was the use of power against the powerless: the widow, the orphan and, above all, the stranger.

To be a Jew is to be a stranger. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this was why Abraham was commanded to leave his land, home and father’s house; why, long before Joseph was born, Abraham was already told that his descendants would be strangers in a land not their own; why Moses had to suffer personal exile before assuming leadership of the people; why the Israelite’s underwent persecution before inheriting their own land; and why the Torah is so insistent that this experience – the retelling of the story on Passover, along with the never-forgotten taste of the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery – should become a permanent part of our collective memory.

It is terrifying in retrospect to grasp how seriously the Torah took the phenomenon of xenophobia,( hatred of the stranger). The Torah is saying with the utmost clarity: the reason is insufficient. Sympathy is inadequate. Only the force of history and memory is strong enough to form a counterweight to hate.

The Torah asks, why should you not hate the stranger? Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf.

I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the color of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image, says G‑d, they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me. And as we know Jews are always at the forefront of every civil rights fight. Even against our own interest, Bernie Sanders is fighting for the supposed underdog.

To quote Henry Fonda in the famous movie the Grapes of Wrath:

“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.” I’ll be all around in the dark. I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look—wherever there’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.

About the Author
Yehuda Lave writes a daily (except on Shabbat and Hags) motivational Torah blog at Loving-kindness my specialty. Internationally Known Speaker and Lecturer and Author. Self Help through Bible and Psychology. Classes in controlling anger and finding Joy. Now living and working in Israel. Remember, it only takes a moment to change your life. Learn to have all the joy in your life that you deserve!!! There are great masters here to interpret Spirituality. Studied Kabbalah and being a good human being with Rabbi Plizken and Rabbi Ephraim Sprecher, my Rabbi. Torah is the name of the game in Israel, with 3,500 years of mystics and scholars interpreting G-D's word. Yehuda Lave is an author, journalist, psychologist, rabbi, spiritual teacher and coach, with degrees in business, psychology and Jewish Law. He works with people from all walks of life and helps them in their search for greater happiness, meaning, business advice on saving money, and spiritual engagement
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