As we were discussing last week what I would teach today, we recognized that, while changes come swiftly these days—every day requires a head spinning, head shaking, face palming new reality, it would be useful to review what we Jews have thought about immigration and refugees–strangers…
First a story, from Rachel Naomi Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom, a wonderful book, by the way…
“…I say to God, ‘God is it okay to luff strangers?’ And God says to me, ‘Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don’t make strangers.’”
The most frequently repeated mitzvah—and here I mean commandment, or way to connect to the Divine, rather than merely a good deed—in the Torah has to do with our treatment of the Stranger.
Indeed, in the Talmud, the compendium of rabbinic wisdom through about the 6th Century CE, Rabbi Eliezer Hagadol—the Great—noted that the Torah “warns against the wronging of a ger—stranger—in 36 places; others say, in 46 places” (BT Baba Metzia 59b). Sometimes the stranger is grouped with the poor, other times with the widow and orphan—the triad that represents society’s most vulnerable, but often the protection of the stranger stands alone.
We read in Exodus (22:20)
Do not mistreat a stranger or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.
A few verses later, we read (23:9)
Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger (literally the soul of a stranger), for once you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Our sages debated the difference between “mistreatment” and “oppression”. They concluded that oppression was about financial wrongs (cheating them, taxing them, taking advantage of them monetarily), while mistreatment was about verbal abuse, such as reminding them of their origins. And, given the wont of the sages, while financial shenanigans were bad, verbal abuse is the worst: they recognized that language can be, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “the creator or destroyer of social bonds.” Financial wounds can be remedied in a way wounding speech cannot.
Think about the plight of the stranger—to literally be a stranger in a strange land—language, customs, rules all different. (How many of you were immigrants? Your parents? I’m imagining we have all heard stories from our parents or grandparents about the struggles of integrating into American culture.)
Immigrants, especially refugees, escaping a horrible ordeal in their own land—whether our escape from slavery in Egypt, the expulsion from Spain, or England, or France, our escape from Nazi Germany and Russian pogroms, the expulsions from Arab lands in 1948, or the plight of Armenians or Cambodians or Rwandans or now Syrians escaping genocide in their own lands…
They—we—become outsiders, with no collective memory of the shot heard ‘round the world or “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” or Betsy Ross or “We the People” or anything that creates a sense of belonging. [On the Daily Show last night, host Trevor Noah, recent immigrant from South Africa, commented on the strangeness of Groundhog’s Day, in which we pull an animal from the ground to predict the weather…]
Back to our texts: in the heart of the Torah, in the Holiness Code—where we read to love our neighbor as ourselves, we read,
When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat them. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt (Lev. 19:33-34).
And in Deuteronomy, the end of the Torah, we discover this gem:
God defends the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving the stranger food and clothing. And you are to love those who are strangers, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt. (Deut. 10:18-19)
We are actually required to LOVE the stranger just as we were supposed to love our neighbor. Not just suffer them, not just provide for them, but actually LOVE them.
Because we were strangers ourselves. Nachmanides, the 13th Century scholar, noted that we know what it feels like to be a stranger…and so we “know that every stranger feels depressed, and is always sighing and crying, and their eyes are always directed toward God.” The stranger tends to be powerless, he continues, often separated from family, friends, neighbors, their community.
What is compelling to me is that THIS is the most oft-repeated mitzvah, and that it is frequently tied to the reminder of our own history. This is one of the cores of the Jewish story: we were slaves, we were refugees—wandering Arameans, we were freed. Abraham left his home, his country, his father’s house, on the journey God had told him to take, and then the Jewish people, his descendants, journeyed out of Egypt, and we were turned away from lands along the way.
When the Torah—or midrash, or any of our teachings—makes a point of repetition, it is usually because we needed to learn this lesson, because it was having trouble penetrating our ways of being.
Reminding us to care for the stranger, even to love the stranger, seems to me a recognition that we were really bad at it. We—and pretty much everyone else. Humans tend to be tribal…just look at the Pew Center study released this week that shows that a third of Americans think one must be Christian to really be American. Reason doesn’t control this fear of the stranger (history teaches), nor do pleas to our sympathy or empathy… What Jews have relied on is the lesson of history and memory: we are no better than anyone else and no one else is better than we are. We rely on our experience—and what has been bred into us since birth: we were strangers in a strange land and have been strangers in all the lands since.
As Hillel taught—the whole Torah can be summarized in one sentence: do not do to someone else what is hateful to you; the rest is commentary—go and study. So we must not treat strangers the way we hated to be treated.