One of the points of pride I felt recently was when the Israeli rescue delegation traveled to Turkey to help find survivors and tend to the wounded in the aftermath of the earthquake. When the IDF delegation pulled a nine-year-old boy out of the rubble after he had been trapped for over 120 hours, I am certain that we all collectively exhaled watching the video footage.
More than that, it seemed that they were actualizing a verse that was read in last week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim: “And a stranger shall you not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
“And a stranger shall you not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt”Exodus 23:9
While the Torah is talking about the stranger among us, it is reasonable to understand that the verse serves as a starting point for the myriad of references to and warnings about how to treat those who are not from within our community.
Why does the Torah take such pains to warn us against oppressing the stranger?
Rabbi Chayim ibn Attar (known as the Ohr Chaim) writes that the very sanctity that Israelites feel as children of the covenant may lead them to look down on those who lack a similar lineage. Therefore, they are commanded not to feel superior to the stranger, but instead to remember the degradation their ancestors experienced in Egypt. This is such an incredible and insightful reading. Because we feel chosen, explains the Ohr Chaim, we may use that sense of being chosen to look down upon and discriminate against those who we feel are not.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that “Hatred of the foreigner is the oldest of passions, going back to tribalism and the prehistory of civilization. The pages of history are stained with blood spilled in the name of racial or ethnic conflict. Dislike of the unlike is as old as mankind... The Torah asks, why should you not hate the stranger? Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you.”
“Hatred of the foreigner is the oldest of passions, going back to tribalism and the prehistory of civilization. The pages of history are stained with blood spilled in the name of racial or ethnic conflict. Dislike of the unlike is as old as mankind... The Torah asks, why should you not hate the stranger? Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you.”Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
TRAVELING TO Turkey to actively assist on the ground, as well as sending aid to Syria, a country hostile to our existence, certainly manifested the call of the Torah to see, in a global sense, the suffering of the other.
Within the Jewish community, we are raised with the value and responsibility of giving, ensuring that we care for our own needy and suffering through the mitzvot of tzedakah (charity) and hessed (kindness). It is thus perhaps surprising to discover that both the Jerusalem and the Palestinian Talmud require Jews to care for non-Jews who are in need:
“It was taught: A city in which there are non-Jews and Jews, you appoint collectors from the non-Jews and collectors from the Jews and you collect from non-Jews and Jews in order to support the poor non-Jews and Jews of the city and one visits the sick non-Jews and the sick Jews and we bury the dead non-Jews and the dead Jews and we comfort the non-Jewish mourners and the Jewish mourners and we launder the clothing of the non-Jews and clothing of the Jews because of the ways of peace” (Jerusalem Talmud Gittin Chapter 5, Halacha 9, 33a).
It is an interesting nuanced text. First, we do not need to collect money for the non-Jews, but we do need to ensure that they have collectors who are doing what is necessary to finance their community’s institutions that care for the poor. Beyond actual money, the Talmud goes on to command us to visit their sick, bury their dead, comfort their mourners and launder their clothing.
Why? Because of the ways of peace. This is distinctly different from the Talmudic answer of “to avoid hostility” that is provided in other cases justifying the relationship between Jew and non-Jew.
The “ways of peace” suggests something much deeper that, to my mind, connects to a passage in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) which brought in the name of Rabbi Akiva. The passage says that mankind are beloved because they were created in the image of God. Pulling back the layers of difference to moments of pain, suffering, loss and indignity, we are all bound by the common denominator of our humanness.
Rabbi Soloveitchik in his essay Abraham’s Journey writes that the universal problems faced by humanity are also faced by the Jew. For this reason, Jews are duty-bound to contribute to the general welfare, regardless of the treatment accorded to them by society. Nonetheless, thousands of years of persecution, suffering and worse at the hands of non-Jews has led to a reflexively dismissive attitude regarding our responsibility to outsiders.
Former chief rabbi Yehuda Unterman in his responsa Shevet M’Yehuda decried this attitude: “Lately it has become customary among our teachers to state that there is no real obligation toward bettering the life of non-Jews… and there is no need to encourage the community to support non-Jews with tzedakah and kindness, for any such acts are only done for the sake of ways of peace and thus have no real source in the Torah law. Therefore, we must define the true concept of ways of peace. It is not just a means to keep Judaism safe from non-Jewish hatred, but flows from the core ethical teachings of the Torah.”
To be a religious person is to follow what God demands of us throughout the Torah, particularly in the portion of Mishpatim which awakens us to the call for social justice throughout the strata of society. Until recently we were unable to fulfill these injunctions, given our own vulnerability and need to rely on ourselves for basic services to survive. Now that we have the power, resources and ability, we must listen to the cries of the vulnerable and oppressed, and see their suffering, even when others look away. ■