Putting the “vav” back into “Ger V’Toshav”: Khayei Sarah

In the Torah, time after time we are taught that we must not oppress the non-Jew living among us because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.  However, we can already learn sensitivity to those without power or position in our societies from the experience of our foremothers and forefathers in the Book of Genesis. In this week’s Torah portion, Khayei Sarah, Abraham says of himself when purchasing a burial plot for Sarah, “I am a ‘ger v’toshav,'” a resident who is not a part of your society.  Abraham is an outsider among the people with whom he lives.  Throughout the Genesis, our ancestors must find a way of coexisting with those who have power over them.

Without a doubt, the powerlessness we experienced through much of our history, and the many times we thought we were secure until we discovered that we weren’t, has shaped our outlook on the world and left scars on our souls.  The question is, “How has it shaped our outlook on the world?” There is no one answer.  Some of us, as the Torah demands of us, are more sensitive to the foreignness others are experiencing because we remember our own past.  Some of us feel burning anger and/or suspicion towards all those who are not “us.”  Some of us are both sensitive and angry and suspicious.

One of our great challenges in Israel is to channel our feelings forged in two thousand years of oppression in a way that does not lead us to repeat and recreate the same oppressive behaviors we experienced.  “Never again” can be “never again for the Jews,” or “never gain for humanity.”

In later Jewish tradition, “ger v’toshav,” Abraham’s “I am both an outsider and a resident,” became the halakhic category of “ger toshav,” a resident alien.  The “vav (and) was taken out. Sometimes we try to use the halakhic category of ger to help us think about how we are to treat non-Jews today in Israel and in the Occupied Territories.  However, many have commented on how insulting and dangerously misleading it is to say that Israel’s minorities and occupied Palestinians are gerim.  How dare we look at those who lived here way before the State of Israel as foreigners? When the “vav” is put back in, the connotations become different.  With the vav, Abraham is essentially saying, “Yes, I am an outsider. However, I also live in this land, just as you do.”

Let us resolve to put the vav back in to our relationships with non-Jews living together with us.  Non-Jewish minorities are outsiders in a state with a Jewish majority, and even more so now that the “Nationality Law,” has made de jure the de facto discrimination against outsiders existing in every society. However, they are not “foreigners.”  They are “neighbors,” “residents,” and most of those living within Israel’s internationally recognized borders are also “citizens.” They are “reim,” usually translated as “neighbors,” “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” but better translated as “those whose humanity makes them essentially like you.” Our shared humanity must be the basis for determining how we treat others, not our differences.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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