By: Rabbi Melanie Aron,
Congregation Shir Hadash
, Los Gatos, California, USA
Responding to the Stranger Who is in Our Midst
Lemah hadavar domeh
– To what is this similar? That is the question I remember best from when I was a young student learning the Talmud. It’s a helpful way of looking at things; by drawing parallels you can extend your understanding.
This week’s Torah portion,
, includes the verses that form the basis for the development of Jewish law on the subject of damages. We examine each new case looking to see if it is more like a pit or a fire, like a goring ox or a grazing one. We look to see if a given situation is like that of a borrower, who gets the benefit of what he has borrowed without paying for it, or a renter, where the benefit is shared between both parties. From these analogies the Talmud builds up an entire code of law, and it is here that most students of the Talmud begin.
This year our congregation, like many in the United States, has been challenged by the question of sanctuary. What is our religious duty? Does it extend to violating the law? Would we join with other religious organizations in our community and provide sanctuary for those being targeted for deportation?
Lemah hadavar domeh
– What is this like?
This week’s Torah portion teaches us about our responsibilities to the stranger, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). It goes beyond the negative, encouraging compassion in us, for we “know the feelings of the stranger” (Exodus 23:9). We are to respect the stranger and not make him work on Shabbat (Exodus 23:12), in that way allowing him too to participate in the mitzvah of
, to be refreshed; insisting by implication, that he too has a soul, he is like us, a
To me, though, the case that is the closest to the challenge that the sanctuary movement poses to us today is in the laws of slavery – not as they are found in this week’s Torah portion, but in the parallel to our Torah portion in the book of Deuteronomy,
Parashat Ki Teitzei
. Deuteronomy 23:16 reads:
“If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand them over to their master.”
This was not a common approach, as explained in the commentary in the
Etz Hayim Torah
produced by the Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism:
“Ancient Near Eastern law forbade harboring runaway slaves, and international treaties regularly required allied states to extradite them. In contrast, the Torah here states that escaped slaves may settle wherever they wish in the land of Israel and forbids returning them to their masters.”
The laws of slavery in this week’s portion pose a challenge. How can a people recently released from slavery countenance this institution? Even if it is different from the slavery practiced in America, even if it is more of a temporary economic arrangement or a byproduct of war, doesn’t it still offend these former slaves to know that a man might have to choose between his family and his freedom? (“If his master gave him a wife, and she has borne him children, the wife and her children shall belong to the master and he shall leave alone” [Exodus 21:4].)
Yes, Biblical law protected slaves. It probably was a help to have masters know that a wound, even something as inconsequential as a broken tooth, would win a slave his freedom (Exodus 21:26-27), but was that really enough?
Further, we could inquire into God’s objection to the enslavement of the Israelites. Was it because they were Israelites, descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with whom God had a covenant as explained in Exodus 6:5, or was it something more?
The Ramban (aka Nachmanides) in his commentary on the commandment not to oppress the stranger (Exodus 22:20) explains that God’s objection to slavery was absolute:
“For I see ‘the tears of the oppressed, with none to comfort them; and the power of their oppressors’” (Ecclesiastes 4:1) and “save the poor from one stronger than he” (Psalms 35:10). A later verse adds an extra reason: “you know the feelings of the stranger” (Exodus 23:9): “You know how low he feels, how he groans and cries, how his eyes are always turned toward God, who will take pity on him as He did on you.
Remember that the Israelites’ cry for help rose up to God by reason of the bondage
He took pity on them by reason of the bondage, not because of any merit of theirs
.” (Translation from the Commentators Bible, the JPS
, Michael Carasik)
Rabbi Joshua Gutoff, in an article in the Jerusalem Post back in 2002, argued that it is the Universalist understanding of the Hebrew word
, which is so significant. Some say that the
is only the convert, others that the
is a non-Jew who acknowledges the authority of Torah, but Rabbi Gutoff quotes the late chief Rabbi of Israel, Isaac Herzog, who insisted that the
included all the non-Jews living in Israel, Christians and Muslims alike. The
, the stranger, is every “other” whom we must treat lovingly, like one like ourselves (Leviticus 19:34)
Rabbi Gutoff concludes: “How we choose to understand the text …will make a great deal of difference to what kind of people we are and to what kind of world we go on to make.”
So too for us today, how we understand our obligations to the stranger will shape our response to the events of our time.