Shemot: Where Do We Draw Our Boundaries?

Perhaps embedded within the debate in our sources as to the identity of the Hebrew midwives is the question, “Does caring for others extend to caring for “the other.”  As those of you who read my divrei Torah regularly know, I believe the correct translation of “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) would be “Love the one who is essentially like yourself as yourself,” and that all humanity is essentially like us because we are all created in God’s Image.  However, given the fact that most of those who are influenced by the Torah read the verse as “neighbor,” and many find even that a stretch, the question of boundaries remains.

The Hebrew midwives risk their lives by defying Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male babies when they were born, “The midwives, fearing God, did not to as the king of Egypt had told them; they let the boys live.” (Exodus 1:17) The Torah commentator Soforno (1475-1550, Italy) says they went even further, saying that Pharaoh then said to them, “Not only did you not obey my command to kill them, but you also advised to keep them alive.” I believe I even saw one commentary in which they gave advice to Pharaoh himself to change his decree.

There is a well-known debate in our tradition whether the Hebrew midwives were themselves Hebrews, or whether they were Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews.  Most accept the former opinion, identifying “Shifra” with Yokheved, the mother of Aaron, Miriam and Moses. “Puah” is usually thought to be Miriam.  There could be many reasons for this, but I wonder if one reason is the difficulty in believing that non-Jews would risk their lives on our behalf.  Maybe our sages were even projecting because of their own limited willingness to risk their lives for non-Jews.

However, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch comments on the verse, “They embittered their lives” (Exodus 1:14):

“At the root of this abuse that cannot be described in words, was the idea of “foreignness,” the wrong assumption that the foreigner has no rights.  Therefore, until this day (Hirsch lived in 19th century Germany), the laws of the Torah regarding the rights of non-Jews living among us stand out in clear contradiction to the laws of other nations.  Twenty four times, every time that the Torah determines rights regarding people and property, the halakha gives special protections to foreigners living among us.

The level of justice in a country is measured not according to the rights given to the native born, the wealthy, and to the well-connected socially (whose connections help them and represent them in times of need.), rather according to the justice accorded to the non-Jew who has no protection.  Complete equality between the native born “citizen,” and the non-Jewish living among us is a basic characteristic of the Torah of Israel  In the Torah of Israel the place of one’s birth is not what grants human rights, but rather human rights grant the homeland! (I assume this means that respecting human rights gives legitimacy to the homeland, or defines the homeland. A.A.)  The Torah of Israel does not distinguish between human rights and civil rights. Everybody who takes upon themselves the basic moral ground rules of humanity-the seven Noachide commandments-can demand the right to live in Judea. (While Judaism does not expect all of humanity to observe all of the commandments incumbent on Jews, Judaism is not entirely relativist. There are 7 laws, akin to “natural law,” that Judaism expects all of humanity to honor. A.A.)

This principle separates between human dignity, and the exigencies of birth and fortune.  Every time the Torah declares this principle, it declares what our ancestors went through in Egypt, seeing as the Egyptians began their plot against us by limiting our rights because we were foreigners, and because of this came about hard labor and cruel suffering.  Therefore the eternal principle: “The distortion of justice is the source of all evil deeds.”

One of the great challenges facing humanity, and the source of the injustices we in the Israeli human rights community struggle against, is the drawing of boundaries. “The other” may be non-Jews, or fellow Jews of a different socioeconomic position. Sometimes the demarcation is legal and intentional, such as when we passed the “Nationality Law” making non-Jews second class citizens de jure, or Jerusalem zoning plans in which limiting the Palestinian percentage of the population becomes an official planning goal.  Sometimes it is unofficial, such as Israeli policy to displace Palestinians living in Area C in the Occupied Territories, and concentrate them in Areas A and B.  In the case of the Negev Bedouin, we failed to pass a law “legally” herding them into townships, so the policy is carried out in other ways.  Sometimes, such as in the case of African asylum seekers, it is done through fearmongering (a tactic Pharaoh also uses in our Torah portion).  In terms of the treatment of Jewish Israelis living in poverty, the discrimination is couched in the language of neo-liberal economic policy. Sometimes people who are others for us are simply not in our consciousness.  We aren’t intentionally discriminating or oppressing, but results are the similar.

On this Shabbat, as oppression, suffering and human rights abuses unfold before us in our Torah portion, take root and grow according to a well thought out blueprint, may we find the strength, wisdom, courage and faith to return to our Torah as Rabbi Hirsch understands it, — an understanding that finds all such boundaries an abomination. May we have the spiritual ability of the midwives to protect life-all life.

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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