Stranger in a Strange Land

Hiking on Mount Sinai

WHY SHOULD YOU not hate the stranger?” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses the question by first pointing out that “hatred of the foreigner is the oldest of passions.” It goes back to tribalism and the prehistory of civilization. The Greeks called strangers “barbarians,” and the Romans were equally dismissive of non-Hellenistic races. The pages of history are stained with blood spilled in the name of religious, racial or ethnic conflict. While the Enlightenment, the new “age of reason,” was supposed to bring these kinds of conflicts to an end, it did not. “In revolutionary France, as the Rights of Man were being pronounced, in 1789, riots broke out against the Jewish  Community in Alsace. Hatred against English and German immigrant workers persisted throughout the nineteenth century. In 1881 in Marseilles a crowd of 10,000 went on a rampage attacking Italians and their property. Dislike of the unlike is as old as mankind.”

“Why should you not hate the stranger? According to the Torah: 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. You must fight the hatred in your heart … There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

We will begin our Passover seder by welcoming anyone who is hungry – an idea that comes straight from the Book of Exodus (23:9), which states, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And later in Leviticus 19:34, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

Over the generations we Jews have been “aliens” more than once. From those who were exiled from Babylonia, to those who were fortunate enough to escape Nazi persecution; or Middle Eastern Jews who were moved to Israel after its founding, and residents of the former Soviet Union who left a life of religious oppression. We are reminded that we were strangers.

According to the 12th century commentator Nachmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman),the command has two dimensions. The first is the relative powerlessness of the stranger. He or she is not surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, or anyone ready to come to their defense. We are warned against wronging them because G-d is the protector of those who have no one else to protect them. This is the political dimension of the command.

The second reason Nachmanides cites is the psychological vulnerability of the stranger. Remember in Moses’ own words at the birth of his first son: “I am a stranger in a strange land”. The stranger lives outside the normal securities of home and belonging. He or she is, or feels, alone – and, throughout the Torah, G-d is especially sensitive to the sigh of the oppressed, the feelings of the rejected, and the cry of the unheard. That is the emotive dimension of the command.

Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, an 18th century Talmudist adds a further fascinating insight. “It may be,” he says, “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 ger, (stranger) but instead to remember the degradation their ancestors experienced in Egypt. As such, it becomes a command of humility in the face of strangers.”

A letter sent to the United States Congress, and signed by 1000 rabbis, stated: “In 1939, the United States refused to let the S.S. St. Louis dock in our country, sending over 900 Jewish refugees back to Europe, where many died in concentration camps. That moment was a stain on the history of our country – a tragic decision made in a political climate of deep fear, suspicion and antisemitism.

The Washington Post released public opinion polling from the early 1940’s, showing that the majority of U.S. citizens did not want to welcome Jewish refugees to this country in those years. “In 1939, our country could not tell the difference between an actual enemy and the victims of an enemy. In 2015, let us not make the same mistake.”

During this year’s seder, it might be worth exploring some of the fears we each have of the other, and how that has played into the xenophobia today. And remember, we Jews aren’t safe from that either! Maybe that is why it is repeated 36 times in the Bible, and every year at Passover to welcome the stranger!

Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.

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