For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt

by Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz

The Jewish Standard: Feb 10, 2017

In the national debate over immigration, it is worthwhile to remember that the status of immigrant residents is not peripheral to the Torah, but central to it.
In his just published book, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics, biblical scholar Jeremiah Unterman writes that “…it is startling that the legal portions of the Torah contain more than fifty references to the resident stranger….”
Unterman examines the multitude of general admonitions not to harm the stranger, along with the positive exhortations to provide the stranger with basic food and clothing, with prompt payment of wages, and with legal justice. He points out that quite a few of these verses about the treatment of the stranger are juxtaposed with statements about God. The Torah understands the care of the stranger as imitatio dei, the imitation of God through the observance of the commandments. Unterman sees this as part of the ethical revolution of the Bible and notes that “nowhere in the ancient world is such a divine concern for the alien evinced.” He concludes with a most timely reminder that these laws should serve “to eliminate any shred of xenophobia.”
A striking phrase courses through the laws of the stranger that provides another powerful motivation for fulfilling these commandments ⏤ that appeals to believers and unbelievers alike:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Ex.22:20).
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.23:9).
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev.19:34).
“You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut.10:19)
“You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were stranger in his land” (Deut.23:8).
“Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment” (Deut. 24:22)
I call this the argument from “historical empathy.” Time and again, the Torah reminds us to remember. We are part of a people that refuses to forget. What is more, we are bidden to create a moral memory.
After all, memory can lead to vengeance. It can lead to the oppressed becoming the oppressors. That is a very natural tendency, and history is replete with such examples. The Torah goes out of its way to argue the opposite. Our historical experience should make us more empathic, not less, to the refugees who seek asylum on our shores.
Perhaps this is why so many Jews have felt so aggrieved and outraged at the recent presidential executive order halting the admission of some refugees to our country. We know so well what it is like to flee oppression and persecution. We know what it like when the gates close. We know that our heritage demands that we act otherwise.
We were strangers in the land of Egypt. We know that applies to a time and place in the formative period of our history, but that it also applies to so many times and places throughout our history. That this executive order was handed down on International Holocaust Remembrance Day is a painful irony.
As of this writing the presidential executive order has been temporarily halted by a federal judge. Whatever its ultimate verdict in the court of public law, this order should be struck down in the court of public opinion. As Jews we are responsible for the “Judeo” in the Judeo- Christian values we herald in guiding our country. Our history and our heritage summon us to lead the way.
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