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Va’ahavtem et ha-Ger: love the stranger

וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת־הַגֵּר Va’ahavtem et ha-ger: You shall love the stranger

This commandment comes twice in Torah along with the reason that we were slaves in Egypt. We should not just look after the stranger, but also feel their pain and link it to our own experience. Jewish immigration to this country is still very recent. How much more so, then, should we be mindful of the asylum seeker today, help them materially and campaign on their behalf.

This commandment comes not once but twice in Torah along with the obligations; ‘You shall not oppress the stranger,’ (Exodus 22:20;23:9) ‘You shall have one law only – the same for native born and stranger’; (Numbers 9:14;15:16) and we are given the reason – ‘For you were slaves in the land of Egypt’ (Leviticus 19:33 Deuteronomy 24:18) Torah focuses on the stranger far more than it does on the treatment of ‘your neighbour’, the born Israelite.

The frequent repetition implies the importance and the urgency of this command. Human beings often have an inbred dislike of the stranger; personal safety demands that we treat such people with suspicion. Yet our own experience tells us that those that find themselves in an alien land, without claims or connections are the first to be openly exploited, discarded and treated with contempt.

Jewish texts give us clear messages that this is wrong.

  1. All humanity is created equally. ‘Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?’ (Malachi 2:10)
  2. Justice should be dispensed with absolute equity. ‘You shall have one ordinance, for the stranger, and for him who was born in the land’. (Numbers 9:14)
  3. Compassion is a primary virtue. ‘When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. When you beat your olive tree, you shall not go over the boughs again; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the stranger, for the orphan, and for the widow. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing’. (Deuteronomy 24:19-22)

 

The appeal to our own experience of slavery ensures that we do not just to look after the stranger, but feel with them their pain and link it to our own.

We do not need to go back all the way to Egypt. Few Jewish families in the United Kingdom today are far from the experiences of persecution and dislocation. There are those who fled the progroms in Russia, there are the victims of Nazi persecution, those who suffered under Communism, and those expelled from Arab countries in the wake of Israel’s independence.

We know what it is like to arrive in a strange country with nothing but fearful memories. We know what it is like to be without language without knowledge and dependent on others who may or may not have our interests at heart. Our immigrant experience goes back to the roots of our faith and Abraham who left his birthplace, his home and his family for an uncertain future in an unknown land. Today there are others who undergo that same experience we cannot ignore their plight.

Sources and Resources:

  • JCORE, the Jewish Council for Racial Equality was formed to combat discrimination and promote racial justice in Britain.
  • René Cassin is a human rights NGO that uses the experience of the Jewish people, and positive Jewish values, to campaign and educate on universal human rights issues such as discrimination, detention, and genocide.
  • Pears Foundation invests in programmes that build respect and understanding between people of different backgrounds in Britain.
  • Citizens for Sanctuary campaign to secure justice for people fleeing persecution and rebuild public support for sanctuary.
  • Refugee Council is the largest refugee agency in the UK providing advice to asylum seekers and refugees.

Key Texts for Study:

 

Exodus 20:22

וְגֵר לֹא־תוֹנֶה וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ כִּי־גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

Do not wrong a stranger and do oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt

 

Exodus 23:9

וְגֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת־נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר כִּי־גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם

Do not oppress a stranger for you know the soul of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

  • What are these two passages saying?
  • In what ways do they differ?
  • What can we learn from the differences?

 

Babylonian Talmud: Baba Metzia 59b

תניא, רבי אליעזר הגדול אומר: מפני מה הזהירה תורה בשלשים וששה מקומות, ואמרי לה בארבעים וששה מקומות בגר ־ מפני שסורו רע. מאי דכתיב וגר לא תונה ולא תלחצנו כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים? תנינא רבי נתן אומר: מום שבך אל תאמר לחברך

It is taught: Rabbi Eliezer the great used to say: Why does the Torah warn in thirty six places – and some say, in forty six places – concerning the stranger? Because humanity tends towards evil. Why is it written ‘Do not wrong a stranger and do not oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’? It is taught: Rabbi Natan used to say: Do not accuse your neighbour of the blemish that is in you.

  • What is the evil discussed in this context?
  • Is it true?
  • What can be done to countereact it?

 

Claude Montefiore: The Bible for Home Reading

It is quite true that the love for mankind as such had not yet been grasped as a realisable idea when the Hebrew Laws were compiled. But the love of neighbour and of stranger was for all the practical purposes of everyday life an ample and adequate substitute. Those who love all who are around them and with whom they come into contact will certainly end by embracing within the circle of their love even those they have never seen and do not know. The later Jewish teachers found no difficulty in passing from the Biblical laws of loving neighbour and stranger to the wider formula, ‘Love all men’!

  • Is it natural to love ones neighbour and the stranger?
  • Is this sufficient to ensure right conduct towards the stranger?
  • Do we need laws to ensure this in our society and if so, what should they be?

 

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