Knowing the Feelings of the Stranger

Mishpatim By :  Marc Gary Executive Vice Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Feb 5, 2016 / 5776 | Main Commentary

This week’s parashah comprises a multitude of ordinances, providing an embarrassment of riches upon which to comment. Capital punishment, abortion, workers’ rights—to name just a few of the issues suggested by the parashah—offer ample grist for the commentator’s mill. Yet in this political year, with all of its focus on immigration, refugees, and minority rights, it would seem almost churlish to avoid addressing one of the key themes of the Torah reading: the treatment of the ger (stranger).

The seminal verse is Exodus 22:20: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The treatment of strangers is not merely the subject of a solitary legal command; it appears to be a leitmotif of biblical literature. In fact, it is probably not too much of an exaggeration to say that the Torah is fixated on the treatment of strangers. According to the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Bava Mezia 59b), the Torah admonishes us about the treatment of strangers no fewer than 36 times, including both the verse quoted above and a similar verse found later in our parashah (Exod. 23:9): “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the Land of Egypt.” No other commandment is repeated so often.

What is more, this legal preoccupation with the stranger finds its counterpart in the full sweep of the narrative history of the Jewish people as depicted in the Torah, not simply the Exodus story. From the outset, Abraham becomes a stranger when he leaves his home and journeys toward Canaan. We also witness Jacob during a pivotal period of his life outside of the Land of Israel, in his uncle Laban’s house, where he suffers the financial exploitation of an outsider. And then we follow Joseph as he spends virtually his entire adult life in Egypt, initially enslaved and then imprisoned before he attains high office (but still the Egyptians would not eat with him! [Gen. 43:32]). The notion of being a stranger appears to be embedded in the Jewish experience and internalized in Jewish identity. I would venture that this is true even in the State of Israel, which is still—for the most part—a nation of immigrants and the children of immigrants.

So what does Exodus 22:20 mean, and to whom does it apply? The term ger can refer to a convert (ger tzedek) or a resident alien (ger toshav). While some biblical commentators interpret the verse as focusing on converts, the author of Sefer Hahinukh gives it a much more expansive reading: “The precept applies at all times and places . . . We should learn from this valuable precept to show compassion to anyone not in his (or her) hometown, far from friends, just as we observe that the Torah admonishes us to show compassion to all in need.” Note that the command makes no distinction between the stranger who resides in the Land legally and one who arrived illegally. All are deserving of our compassion.

Turning from its scope to its substance, we must ask: What does it mean to “wrong” and “oppress” a stranger, and how do those two concepts differ? According to the Mekhilta, to “wrong” relates to verbal abuse, while “oppression” refers to monetary matters (Mishpatim, Mas. Nezikin, 17).

The economic exploitation of resident aliens—particularly those who are not here legally—is a serious problem which ties directly to the Israelites’ experience of slavery in Egypt. Just as we remember that we were forced to labor for no wages in arduous conditions, so it is that we must be sensitive to the strangers in our midst who are compelled by force or circumstance to work in unsanitary or unsafe conditions for substandard pay. Recent news articles about immigrant nail technicians working in inadequately regulated salons and about migrant workers exploited in agricultural settings provide but two examples of this form of oppression. No one who takes seriously the Torah’s repeated concern with the treatment of strangers can turn a blind eye to these forms of oppression.

But the current political environment should also cause us to react vigorously and unequivocally to the other form of mistreatment of strangers in our midst: verbal abuse. When the political discourse devolves to generalizations about Muslim immigrants being terrorists and Mexican immigrants being rapists, we are called by the Torah to remember that Jews, too, have been the subject of such pernicious generalizations and therefore we “know the feelings of the stranger” (Exod. 23:9). They are feelings of isolation and, often, helplessness. The Torah commands us to combat those feelings by standing with the strangers among us and speaking on their behalf.

We must be honest enough with ourselves, however, to acknowledge that historical memory of prior suffering is often insufficient to motivate us to act on behalf of the oppressed. Indeed, as Nechama Leibowitz points out:

[T]he memory of your own humiliation is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you . . . On the contrary, how often do we find that the slave or exile who gains power and freedom, or anyone who harbors the memory of suffering to himself or his forbears, finds compensation for his former sufferings, by giving free rein to his tyrannical instincts, when he has the opportunity to lord it over others? (Studies in Shemot, 384)

Because the Jewish community has become more established, affluent, and accepted, the historical memory of suffering may no longer spur us to action. Rashi offers a pragmatic response to this problem: “If you wrong him [the stranger], he can wrong you back and say to you: ‘You also come from strangers.’” In other words, we should remember that oppression can often lead to retaliation.

That pragmatic, if somewhat cynical, advice is well worth considering, but I prefer the Ramban’s warning to those whose historical memory of suffering is inadequate to stir a compassionate response to the stranger. He points out that when the Israelites were at their most vulnerable and defenseless in Egypt, they had a divine Protector who redeemed them. So it is today. Some may believe that they can oppress the strangers in our community with impunity because immigrants are isolated from friends and family and have no one to protect them, but that protection will surely come from someplace else. The command of Exodus 22:20 and its other iterations call upon us to perform God’s work and provide that protection.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Parashah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee (z”l) and Harold Hassenfeld (z”l).