Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks -Loving the Stranger Mishpatim 5779

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Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks -The Pursuit of Meaning Vayikra 5779

There are commands that leap o? the page by their sheer moral power. So it is in the case of the social legislation in Mishpatim. Amid the complex laws relating to the treatment of slaves, personal injury and property, one command in particular stands out, by virtue of its repetition (it appears twice in our parsha), and the historical-psychological reasoning that lies behind it:

Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)

Do 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. (Ex. 23:9)

Mishpatim contains many laws 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 covenantal 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.

If a person was a son of proselytes, one must not taunt him by saying, “Remember the deeds of your ancestors,” because it is written “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him.”

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; others say, in forty-six places.”[1]

Whatever the precise number, the repetition throughout the Mosaic books is remarkable. Sometimes the stranger is mentioned along with the poor; at others, with the widow and orphan. On several occasions the Torah specifies: “You shall have the same law for the stranger as for the native-born.”[2] Not only must the stranger not be wronged; he or she must be included in the positive welfare provisions of Israelite/ Jewish 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 Lord your God. (Lev. 19:33–34)

This provision appears in the same chapter as the command, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Later, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses makes it clear that this is the attribute of God Himself:

“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, 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.” (Deut. 10:17–19)

What is the logic of the command? The most profound commentary is that given by Nachmanides:
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 God, therefore He will have mercy upon him even as He showed mercy to you [and likewise He has mercy on all who are oppressed].[3]

According to Nachmanides the command has two dimensions. The first is the relative powerlessness of the stranger. He or she is not surrounded by family, friends, neighbours, a community of those ready to come to their defence. Therefore the Torah warns against wronging them because God has made Himself protector of those who have no one else to protect them. This is the political dimension of the command. The second reason, as we have already noted, 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,” Ex. 2:22). 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, God is especially sensitive to the sigh of the oppressed, the feelings of the rejected, the cry of the unheard. That is the emotive dimension of the command.

Rabbi Chayim ibn Attar (Ohr HaChayim) adds a further fascinating insight. It may be, he says, that the very sanctity that Israelites feel as children of the covenant may lead them to look down on those who lack a similar lineage. Therefore they are commanded not to feel superior to the ger, but instead to remember the degradation their ancestors experienced in Egypt.[4] As such, it becomes a command of humility in the face of strangers.

Whichever way we look at it, there is something striking about this almost endlessly iterated concern for the stranger – together with the historical reminder that “you yourselves were slaves in Egypt.” It is as if, in this series of laws, we are nearing the core of the mystery of Jewish existence itself. What is the Torah implying?

Concern for social justice was not unique to Israel.[5] What we sense, however, throughout the early biblical narrative, is the lack of basic rights to which outsiders could appeal. Not by accident is the fate of Sodom and the cities of the plain sealed when they attempt to assault Lot’s two visitors. Nor can we fail to feel the risk to which Abraham and Isaac believe they are exposed when they are forced to leave home and take refuge in Egypt or the land of the Philistines. In each of the three episodes (Genesis chapters 12, 20, 26) they are convinced that their lives are at stake; that they may be murdered so that their wives can be taken into the royal harem.

There are also repeated implications, in the course of the Joseph story, that in Egypt, Israelites were regarded as pariahs (the word “Hebrew,” like the term hapiru found in the non-Israelite literature of the period, seems to have a strong negative connotation). One verse in particular – when the brothers visit Joseph a second time – indicates the distaste with which they were regarded:

They served him [ Joseph] by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians. (Gen. 43:32)

So it was, in the ancient world. Hatred of the foreigner is the oldest of passions, going back to tribalism and the prehistory of civilisation. The Greeks called strangers “barbarians” because of their (as it seemed to them) outlandish speech that sounded like the bleating of sheep.[6] The Romans were equally dismissive of non-Hellenistic races. The pages of history are stained with blood spilled in the name of racial or ethnic conflict. It was precisely this to which the Enlightenment, the new “age of reason,” promised an end. It did not happen. In 1789, in revolutionary France, as the Rights of Man were being pronounced, riots broke out against the Jewish community in Alsace. Hatred against English and German immigrant workers persisted throughout the nineteenth century.

 

In 1881 in Marseilles a crowd of ten thousand went on a rampage attacking Italians and their property. Dislike of the unlike is as old as mankind. This fact lies at the very heart of the Jewish experience. It is no coincidence that Judaism was born in two journeys away from the two greatest civilisations of the ancient world: Abraham’s from Mesopotamia, Moses’ and the Israelites’ from Pharaonic Egypt. The Torah is the world’s great protest against empires and imperialism. There are many dimensions to this protest. One dimension is the protest against the attempt to justify social hierarchy and the absolute power of rulers in the name of religion. Another is the subordination of the masses to the state – epitomised by the vast building projects, first of Babel, then of Egypt, and the enslavement they entailed. A third is the brutality of nations in the course of war (the subject of Amos’ oracles against the nations). Undoubtedly, though, the most serious offence – for the prophets as well as the Mosaic books – 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 su?er personal exile before assuming leadership of the people; why the Israelites 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 their collective memory.

It is terrifying in retrospect to grasp how seriously the Torah took the phenomenon of xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. It is as if the Torah were saying with the utmost clarity: 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 colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image, says God, 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.

Shabbat shalom

 

 

 

[1] Bava Metzia 59b.

[2] Exodus 12:49; Leviticus 24:22; Numbers 15:16, 29.

[3] Ramban, commentary to Exodus 22:22.

[4] Ohr Ha?ayim, commentary to Exodus 22:20.

[5] See Moshe Weinfeld, Social Justice in Ancient Israel and in the Ancient Near East (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1995).

[6] The verb barbarízein in ancient Greek meant imitating the linguistic sounds non- Greeks made, or making grammatical errors in Greek.

 

 

 

An international religious leader, philosopher, award-winning author and respected moral voice, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks was awarded the 2016 Templeton Prize in recognition of his “exceptional contributions to affirming life’s spiritual dimension.” Described by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales as “a light unto this nation” and by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as “an intellectual giant”, Rabbi Sacks is a frequent and sought-after contributor to radio, television and the press both in Britain and around the world.

Since stepping down as the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – a position he served for 22 years between 1991 and 2013 – Rabbi Sacks has held a number of professorships at several academic institutions including Yeshiva University and King’s College London. In addition to his writing and lecturing, he currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University. Rabbi Sacks has been awarded 17 honorary doctorates including a Doctor of Divinity conferred to mark his first ten years in office as Chief Rabbi, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey.

Rabbi Sacks is the author of over 30 books. Among them, Rabbi Sacks has published a new English translation and commentary for the Koren Sacks Siddur, the first new Orthodox siddur in a generation, as well as powerful commentaries for the Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot Machzorim. His most recent work, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence was awarded a 2015 National Jewish Book Award in America and was a top ten Sunday Times bestseller in the UK. Past works include: The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning; The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, winner of the Grawemeyer Prize for Religion in 2004 for its success in defining a framework for interfaith dialogue between people of all faith and of none; To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility; and A Letter in the Scroll: On Being Jewish, winner of a National Jewish Book Awards in 2000. His Covenant & Conversationcommentaries on the weekly Torah portion are read in Jewish communities around the world.

In recognition of his work, Rabbi Sacks has received, among others, the Jerusalem Prize in 1995 for his contribution to diaspora Jewish life, The Ladislaus Laszt Ecumenical and Social Concern Award from Ben Gurion University in Israel in 2011, The Guardian of Zion Award from the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University in 2014, and The Katz Award in recognition of his contribution to the practical analysis and application of Halakha in modern life in Israel in 2014. He was named as The Becket Fund’s 2014 Canterbury Medalist for his role in the defence of religious liberty in the public square; won a Bradley Prize in 2016 in recognition of being “a leading moral voice in today’s world”; and in 2017, he was awarded the Irving Kristol Award from the American Enterprise Institute for his “remarkable contributions to philosophy, religion, and interfaith discourse… as one of the world’s greatest living public intellectuals.” In 2018, he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by The London Jewish News in recognition of his services to the Jewish world and wider society.

Rabbi Sacks was knighted by Her Majesty The Queen in 2005 and made a Life Peer, taking his seat in the House of Lords in October 2009. Born in 1948 in London, he has been married to Elaine since 1970. They have three children and several grandchildren.

 

 

 

 

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