Tradition Today: The stranger in your midst

The reason that is cited time and time again for many specific mitzvot is "for you were strangers in Egypt."

"This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you" (Exodus 12:2). One might have thought that Nisan, the month of springtime, was designated the "first of the months for you" because it is the time of the renewal and rebirth of nature, but that is not the case. Nisan is the first because it is the beginning of the renewal and rebirth of the people Israel, the time when Israel gained its freedom and emerged from Egyptian slavery. "Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand... You go free on this day, in the month of Abib" (Ex. 13:3-4). It is part of the revolutionary nature of the religion of Israel that it downplayed the cult of nature, which was so important in many pagan religions. It did so mainly in order to stress the idea that nature is subservient to God, the creation of God, and is not divinity itself. Judaism stresses the interplay between God and humanity, between God and Israel, and centers our celebrations upon our history. It is said that every people has a founding myth, a story that explains its origins, its existence and the meaning of its being. The founding myth of Israel is the exodus from Egypt - yetziat mitzrayim. The Torah makes it very clear that only in Egypt did Israel become a nation. Indeed the experience of Egypt, the suffering, the enslavement and the miraculous redemption, were the formative elements of Israel's existence. The religion of Israel and the Judaism that emerged from it are inconceivable without the exodus. The influence of the story of the exodus from Egypt on Judaism and on Halacha - Jewish law - was and is immense and profound. In a very real sense the entire obligation to observe mitzvot rests upon the acknowledgment that it was the Lord God who brought Israel from slavery to freedom. The prologue to the theophany at Sinai and the making of the covenant states explicitly, "You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples" (Ex. 19:4-5). It was not only the liberation, however, that was a source of inspiration, but also the experience of slavery itself. The reason that is cited time and time again for many specific mitzvot is "for you were strangers in Egypt." The enslavement and subsequent manumission of Israel is the reason that we are to treat others differently than we were treated. It would have been expected that the lesson to be learned from the experience of slavery and liberation would be never again to permit ourselves to be enslaved, to avoid being mistreated in that way at any cost. To the best of my knowledge nowhere is that mentioned in the Torah. Instead the lesson is that having experienced the suffering of slavery, the suffering of being a stranger without rights, we should never treat others in that way. Thus empathy for the stranger and for anyone who is powerless results in a series of laws that protect their rights. This idea is found first in the collection of regulations that is an integral part of the revelation at Sinai, immediately following the proclamation of the Decalogue itself: "You shall not wrong a stranger [ger] or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Ex. 22:20). This is repeated again even more explicitly in the very next chapter: "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt" (Ex. 23:9) and in many other places as well. The definition of the ger in the Torah is more than that implied by the English word "stranger." Rather it reflects a legal status: One who lives in the land but is not part of the native community and therefore does not have the rights accorded to a citizen [ezrah]. When the Torah proclaimed "ka'ezrah... kager" - "the stranger shall be... like the citizen" (Leviticus 19:34), it is placing the alien on the same footing as the native in these cases - the outgrowth of the command not to oppress the stranger because of the Egyptian experience. The treatment of "others" - strangers if you will - in Israel is a major matter for concern in our days. Israel is defined as a "Jewish state" and rightly so, but how do we relate to those who are not Jewish and who live in our midst? Here, as in so much else, the ethics and principles of the Torah, ancient as they are, speak loudly to us. Indeed the command concerning the stranger, "and you shall love him as yourself" (Lev. 19:34), is as valid today as when it was first spoken and should be uppermost in our minds as we enter this most important of all months. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the author of several books, the most recent being Entering Torah.