The Strangers Among Us

February 1st: Mishpatim
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

One of the Rabbis’ rules of thumb is the belief that God is not redundant. If the Torah says something more than once, it is not mere repetition. Rather, the double or multiple expression of a thought or mitzvah is for a reason—and the Rabbis’ task is to figure out what God has in mind.

 A prime example of this Midrashic work is the number of cups of wine we drink at the Passover Seder. The purpose of the Exodus was to save us from Egyptian slavery, but God does not just say this once. Instead, in Exodus 6.6-7, God uses a bunch of synonymous statements to speak of our redemption:
1)      “I will bring them forth from their suffering in Egypt,
2)      I will rescue them from their slavery,
3)      I will give their lives meaning with My outstretched arm and great actions,
4)      I will take them unto me as My people.”

The Rabbis see each phrase as a different dimension of the salvation, and they prescribe a different cup to celebrate each one.

 (There is, of course, a slight complication. While the Exodus 6.6-7 passage identifies four dimensions of redemption, the very next verse gives what could be considered a fifth: “And I will bring you into the land.” Does this verse mean that we should add a fifth cup of wine? There were divergent opinions among the Sages, and the debate raged for years. Finally, the Rabbis realized that a resolution is currently impossible, so they decided to wait until the end of days, when Elijah will herald the coming of the Messiah, and all questions will be answered. In the meantime, we pour five cups, drink four, and leave one for Elijah.)

 The Four Children section of the Seder is similarly based. Four times God gives the instruction that the Israelites should tell their children about the Exodus—in Exodus 12.26–27, Exodus 13.8, Exodus 13.14, and Deuteronomy 6.20–21. Is God just being emphatic, or is there a subtle difference in each mitzvah that suggests a different kind of telling. The Rabbinic answer is that there are four different types of children, and that each one needs the message to be communicated in a particular way.

 This principle of God is not redundant comes to bear in this week’s Parshat Mishpatim where we hear a single message spoken twice. First, we read Exodus 22.20: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The mitzvah seems obvious and simple enough. Why, then, would God repeat the message just nineteen verses later? “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9)

 The commentary in Etz Hayim suggests that the two mitzvot are directed at different audiences—the first being an instruction for individual Israelites in their daily lives, and the second being a specific instruction to judges. Just as a judge should not favor people he knows, so should he not show judicial prejudice against outlanders/strangers. This is a principle approached several times in the Torah. In Exodus 12.49, Leviticus 24.22, and Numbers (15.29), we read that the same laws and rules should apply to both native born and resident aliens.

 One could also interpret these two mitzvot as referring to two types of strangers—two types of strangeness. Some are strange because they come from other places—from other cities, states, countries, religions, or cultures. When we encounter these strangers, we are bidden to find the common humanity we share and to treat them with respect and fairness. As the Prophet Amos reminds us, (9.7), God loves all humanity and has a special relationship with every people. “To Me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians, declares the Lord. True, I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor, and the Arameans from Kir.”

 How are we to treat people from other places? Within our country, there are often differences with which we need to contend, but what happens when people seek to join us from other countries? Though we certainly have the right and the responsibility to maintain our borders and to protect our country, we also have an obligation to respect the humanity of the immigrants who arrive upon our shores or at our borders. The Torah reminds us that they are human beings and not political footballs, but the political process seems more focused on politicking than approaching these human beings with respect and fairness. The solutions to our immigration debate have been obvious for some thirty years, but our administrators and legislators have allowed themselves to be paralyzed by political gamesmanship, and the immigrants and the many citizens who depend upon them have been forgotten in the politic haggling.

 The other strangers among us are individuals who are not foreign but who are strange in their appearance or abilities. Most of us have enough manners not to publicly berate or make fun of someone with a developmental disability, but do we extend the same awareness and respect to those who are unattractive or socially awkward? And, what about the people with disabilities? We have laws mandating accommodation for them in employment and public facilities, but do we treat them as human beings and welcome them into our conversations and social circles? One of the most upsetting things about adulthood is the realization that we never outgrow middle school and the dynamics of socializing and ostracizing.  Oh, how we need the wisdom of the Torah when we are tempted to focus on someone’s strangeness and not on the image of God residing within.

 We are given guidance in this sensibility by the second version’s psychological clause: “for you know the heart of the stranger, seeing that you yourself have been a stranger…” Though we work very hard to find places where we belong—where we fit in, the fact is that we have all experienced social alienation, and we know the awkwardness and psychic pain of being strange. Let us take these painful memories and use them for good. Let us pay attention to our social dynamics and endeavor to make everyone feel at home. We know the heart and the pain of the stranger; let us take the Torah to heart and extend to every stranger the warmth and the welcome we all need.