For you were strangers in the land of Egypt
The holiday of Pesah, the season of our liberation, ended a week ago, and it reminded us of the foundational experience of our exodus from bondage to freedom. Of course, that is not the Torah’s only commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt. We observe many different commandments which mention this great foundational event of our history. Indeed, the month of Nisan is the first of months – some say that the world itself was created in Nisan. It is also said that, “They were redeemed in Nisan, and their future redemption shall occur in Nisan.” The Exodus from Egypt is commemorated in different contexts, and even towards different ends. In the parasha of Aharei Mot, we are warned not to commit practices such as those of the land of Egypt.
On the other hand, the phrase for you were strangers in the land of Egypt appears four times in the Torah, serving as a moral and psychological argument that must guide our treatment of the strangers among us.
In parashat Mishpatim, we read:
You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shemot 23:9)
In our own parasha:
When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. 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; I the Lord am your God. (Vayikra 19:33-34)
And in the book of Devarim:
For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Devarim 10:17-19)
Some exegetes explain that the stranger referred to by the Torah is a ger tzedek, a convert to Judaism. However, it is not necessary to accept this interpretation; in fact, it may make more sense to assume that these verses are talking about an alien who lives among us. After all, the second half of the verse, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt, must be understood in this way; we did not convert to the religion of ancient Egypt, rather, we lived as aliens there. In addition, the whole notion of conversion to Judaism as it is known to us was developed later in our history.
We, then, are commanded by the law of the Torah to treat the stranger fairly, not to deceive him, and even to love him. We must do this because it is incumbent upon us to walk in the ways of the Lord, Who does justice for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. The Torah finds it necessary to take the opportunity to remind us that we were also strangers, and so we know the feelings of the stranger. Various commentators have related to this statement in different ways. The RaMBaN offers us a well-developed theory:
The correct interpretation appears to me to be that He is saying: “Do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, thinking as you might that none can deliver him out of your hand; for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I saw the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppressed (Shemot 3:9) you, and I avenged your cause on them, because I behold the tears of such who are oppressed and have no comforter, and on the side of their oppressors there is power (Kohellet 4:1) and I deliver each one from him that is too strong for him (Tehillim 35:10). Likewise you shall not afflict the widow and the fatherless child (Shemot 22: 21), for I will hear their cry, for all these people do not rely on themselves but trust in Me.” And in another verse He added this reason: for you know the soul of a stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt (23:9). That is to say, you know that every stranger feels depressed, and is always sighing and crying, and his eyes are always directed towards God, therefore He will have mercy upon him even as He showed mercy to you, just as it is written, and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage (2:23), meaning that He had mercy on them not because of their merits, but only on account of the bondage [and likewise He has mercy on all who are oppressed].
(RaMBaN on Shemot 22:20, Chavel translation)
The RaMBaN emphasizes that God will seek justice for every persecuted person, out of divine sympathy for the oppressed. On the other hand, Rabbi S. R. Hirsch contrasts Egypt’s tribal morality with the Torah’s universal ethic:
As aliens, you had no rights in Egypt; that was the root of the slavery and troubles which afflicted you. Therefore - such is the formulation of the warning – you must take care not to base human rights in your state upon any other foundation than pure humanity, which dwells in every human heart inasmuch as a person is human. Any neglect of human rights opens a door to arbitrariness and human persecution – which were the roots of Egypt’s abominations. (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch on Shemot 22:20)
These unambiguous words did not appear in a “Betselem” manifesto, nor in an advertisement of the Association for Civil Rights; they were written 150 years ago by one of Germany’s great Torah leaders. They awaken wonder and enthusiasm; I would be happy to hear more statements like this from our contemporary rabbis.
Why, then, are such voices so rare today? Why do troubling phenomena of exploitation and discrimination against aliens occur in Israeli society?
There may be many reasons, but it might be that one source of our lack of moral sensitivity is connected – quite paradoxically – with the Jewish People’s own experience of the Holocaust and persecution in many lands. One might understand – but perhaps not justify – a lack of openness in a victim who has difficulty shaking off his own identity of victimhood. We may have left the diaspora, but we have not removed the diaspora from within us, and we have failed to take full responsibility for what happens in our own society.
It should be noted that these commandments, which require fair and equal treatment of strangers, are part of the parasha Kedoshim tehiyu (You shall be holy). Holiness involves self-overcoming and restraint, but it can exist only in a society based upon justice.
Prof. Nehama Leibowitz, z”l, demonstrated that the expression fear of the Lord occurs in connection with the treatment of members of minority groups, of alien peoples, since, quite naturally, the stranger is weak and depends more upon the good graces of the regime than does a citizen who belongs to the majority group.
We should welcome the new awakening of social initiatives - involving rabbinical participation - which battle social injustice and discrimination. However, there is still room to raise up a great outcry against the humiliating treatment of the strangers among us, and for the situation to be redressed. These aspects of holiness and fear of God are always worthy of consideration, all the more so in the days between Yom HaShoah and Yom HaAtzma’ut.