Friday, February 1, 2019
Thursday, January 31, 2019
Tuesday, January 29, 2019
STRANGERS AT THE GATES
Rabbi David Walk
Quick! What issue appears in the Torah more than any other? It's not even close. Answer is: treatment of strangers. With so much of the world terrified of refugees, it's a bit ironic that the Torah is so intent on protecting the outsider. Fear of the foreigner goes way back in human history. And it, indeed, precipitated the building of walls. Ah, plus ca change, the more things change the more they remain the same. Apparently, the first such wall was right here in Eretz , in Jericho. About 10,000 years ago, the ancient inhabitants felt the need to protect their wealth which was the result of abundant springs in the area. So, Jericho got a wall, and slammed gates in the face of strangers. The rest is history, or it was until the invention of artillery. Cannonballs are tough on walls. Everyone preached fear of the stranger, except the Torah.
The Talmud reports that the Torah prohibits the oppression of a GER in 36 places (Baba 59b). Who is this GER? The cases in the Talmud assume that it means a convert (GER TZEDEK), and prohibits reminding this New Jew of his idolatrous background. However, that doesn't seem to be the context of the verses in this week's Torah reading. There are two such verses, 'And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt ( 22:20)', and 'And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt (23:9).' The references to our experience in Egypt seem to exclude converts, and clinches it by explaining, 'Every expression of a stranger means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there (22:20).' Our GER is the immigrant or refugee.
What does the verse mean when it says 'for you know the feelings of the stranger'? The Hebrew is ATEM YOD'IM ET NEFESH HAGER. I translated NEFESH as 'feelings', following Aryeh Kaplan OBM, but Dr. Robert Alter renders it 'heart', but in a foot note adds 'life', 'inner nature', and 'essential being'. In other words, you Jews know exactly what it's like to be the outsider and the other in a society. So, have a little compassion. We're the eternal alien, and not the cute, beloved kind, like ET.
But what are the prohibited acts included in 'mistreat' (Hebrew: LO TONU) and 'oppress' (TILCHATZENU)? , based on the , records, 'Don't taunt them with words...(or) rob them of their money.' We are forbidden to harm them emotionally and financially. The GER is often included in lists together with the widow and orphan. That happens here as well in Chapter 20, God lists the three categories of those who are without societal allies, and declares, 'If you oppress them, beware, for if one of these cries out to Me, I will surely hear the cry. My wrath will be kindled, and I will slay you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans (verses 23-4).' It seems that the Torah goes out of its way to protect those who can't defend themselves.
The Torah is also referring to reciprocity. Your affliction of these defenseless strangers will bring a similar fate to you. This should be familiar to us, because back in chapter three God informed Moshe, 'I have seen the oppression which the Egyptians oppress you with (verse 9). This is the first appearance of the Hebrew word for oppression (LACHATZ) since that occasion, when it's used to prohibit untoward behavior toward the outsider. That's a powerful link between this mitzva and our experience as immigrants who were forced into servitude in Egypt.
Which brings us to the main question, why does the Torah emphasize the treatment of strangers far above other concerns of Jewish Law? Even the three major sins for which one may (or must) die rather than transgress (idolatry, murder and adultery) don't get this volume of coverage. The obvious answer is: because it's so easy to take advantage of these people. Sadly, some dastardly deeds are done merely because the perpetrator can. However, I think that the reciprocity idea is the key, but not necessarily in the way you might have thought.
First of all, there is the relatively straight forward connection between our behavior and the treatment we receive from God. This idea is emphasized explicitly in our verses and other sources (check Malachi 3:5). We do believe that ultimately our lot is bound up in our behavior. If not here, then in the World Come. But there's more to it.
On the Psychology Today website, there is an article by the English novelist, Sarah Rayner, called The Kindness of Strangers—the Ripple Effect of Compassion. In which she concludes that the value of being kind, considerate and caring not only benefits the other party but extends to our psyches as well. She concludes: If we do bad deeds, they generate further bad deeds, which can then spread suffering and misery far and wide like the multiple explosions of a cluster bomb. But kindness begets more kindness and spreads warmth, like the sun. And I add: Amen!
Ultimately, the true beneficiary of our kindness to the stranger, the outsider, the alien, the immigrant, the refugee is us. This goes beyond 'loving others as one loves themselves', because the entirety of the society benefits as well. We get more livable communities, and by extension, countries and planet.
My grandparents were refugees, Ellis Island, Class of 1905. And I'm an immigrant, okay, OLEH CHADASH. Their success and mine can be attributed to societies following these Torah precepts. To a certain extent we're all Blanche Dubois, who famously said, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.' Thank you, Tennesse Williams, and thank you to the societies who fulfilled strangers' dreams.
Monday, January 28, 2019
- ▼ 01/27 - 02/03 (6)
- ► 2018 (129)
- ► 2017 (143)
- ► 2016 (103)
- ► 2015 (57)
- ► 2014 (56)
- ► 2013 (56)
- ► 2012 (57)
- ► 2011 (49)
- ► 2010 (53)
- ► 2009 (21)