Parasha / E-Letter

Parashat Mishpatim: The “gerim” in our midst

0 Comments 07 February 2018

Who is “the stranger” that the Torah speaks about? How are we to interpret these commandments related to them? In her dvar Torah to Parashat Mishpatim, Rabbi Ayala Ronen Samuels challenges us to consider how we must treat the non-Jews among us in order to truly be a Jewish nation. 

By Rabbi Ayala Ronen Samuels

In the previous Torah reading, Yitro featured the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments. This week’s parasha is entirely concerned with laws – for the creation of a moral and functional society. A long series of laws, a list organized by subject. Laws from this Torah reading became inalienable assets of the people, developed in the Mishna and Talmud and from them grows Jewish law. For instance…

“You shall not pervert the judgment of your poor man in his lawsuit.” Exodus 23: 6

“Distance yourself from a false matter” Exodus 23: 7

“You shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe will blind the clear sighted and corrupt words that are right.” Exodus 23:8

One of the subjects the parasha expands in particular is the appropriate treatment of the “stranger”:

20. “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

21.”You shall not oppress any widow or orphan.”

22. “If you oppress him, [beware] for if he cries out to Me, I will surely hear his cry.”

23. “My wrath will be kindled, and I will slay you with the sword, and your wives will be widows and your children orphans.”-Exodus, Chapter 22

9. “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” -Exodus, Chapter 23

Concepts: “Lo Tona”— do not mistreat — the sages explained that this refers to mistreatment in words (teasing, bullying) but also financial abuse, deception and theft. With regard to “gerim,” (strangers/sojourners) the distinction is made between a “ger tzeddek” (a righteous sojourner) who comes to join the people of Israel through a process of conversion and acceptance of the commandments and a “ger toshav” (a resident stranger) – a non-Jew who lives amongst the Jews.

It must be emphasized that only in the language of the sages does the concept “ger” (stranger) become a synonym for “a person who joins the Jewish people.”  In the Torah, the reference is to any stranger who is not a member of the Jewish people and is not a local resident, and so s/he is very vulnerable, socially and legally. It is for this reason that the Torah makes great efforts to protect such a person.

Why is it necessary to warn us about the abuse of strangers? Rashi in his dry words explains about human nature: “Since they are powerless and it is very common to abuse them.”

Samson Rafael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century) saw in the reference in first person as nevertheless aimed at the state as a body and he says in his commentary:

“There it says `the stranger you should not mistreat` (“lo tona“); and this is mainly a warning for the state, that it should not fail in abuse of the stranger; one must not deprive the foreigner as against the citizen regarding their rights and duties. And in fact here it says ‘do not mistreat’ (“lo tonu”) in plural and so this is a warning for the national society for all its parts: prevent him/her from feeling their status of foreignness in civil relations in the society.”

The Torah warns and commands regarding the stranger 36 times!

Who are we forbidden to mistreat or abuse? Is it the convert or the alien stranger? Should we narrow or expand the range of influence of this warning? Maimonides, for example, narrowed the extent of the commandment and determined that the law against mistreating a stranger is only applicable to the case of a convert. But Ibn Ezra decided otherwise and expanded the application of the commandment, giving the argument that if it is forbidden to mistreat the stranger because “you were strangers in Egypt” then it is clear that the children of Israel were certainly foreign residents there and not converts (they did not try to assimilate and become Egyptians.)

About one hundred years ago, Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaCohen Kook (one of the fathers of religious Zionism) determined that the status of Muslims, residents of the Land, was that of “resident strangers” (“gerei toshav”).

Jews do not today observe literally all the laws and commandments in this week’s Torah portion nor is that the case in the halacha. Some things have been greatly expanded (kosher laws) and some have been limited and have disappeared, like the laws of the Hebrew slave (and that is a good thing).

In every period, every community and every leader emphasized and were exacting about certain commandments while reducing or ignoring others. What influenced these choices? Geographical, social and economic reality, as well as worldviews and ideologies. That is also the case today.

Many Jews today prefer to be careful about every detail, big or small, in the area of food laws (“kashrut”) and the commandments concerning impurity of menstruating women (“nidda”) but on the other hand are much more lenient about other commandments.

In my eyes the commandment “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” is one of the most important commandments and one about which I am stringent in every detail, just as my father, a man of the Hashomer Hatzair movement (socialist Zionist group), may he rest in peace, taught me.

After so many years in which Jews primarily were in the status of a minority amongst the nations, we have returned to being a society with a Jewish majority among whom live righteous foreigners (“gerei tzeddek”) who desire to join the Jewish people and also foreign residents (“gerei toshav”) who live among us but desire to maintain their own identities and religions.

The policy of the government and its attempts to legislate racist laws aimed at worker migrants in an attempt to expel them, Arab citizens in order to dispossess them and discriminate against them, and against new “olim” (immigrants) to make their conversion to Judaism more difficult – all are entirely contradictory to the commandment that the Torah expounds upon, repeatedly emphasizes and warns us about!

The Torah explains its attitude to the foreigner by saying that we too have been a minority in a foreign land, we also have been refugees lacking all, and we too wanted to receive equal status within other nations. But the text adds a stern warning – the punishment for transgressors against this law regarding foreigners will be from heaven. God in person, with all the power that entails, will punish the people for racism, discrimination and repression of the stranger and the vulnerable amongst us.

And if I do not expect a divine reward or punishment of one kind or another, what do I demand of myself with regard to my Arab gardener, the Russian cleaner, the Fillipino woman who takes care of my mother? These are the “gerim” (sojourners) in our midst, in our homes and in our yards. How do we treat them?

Soon it will be the beginning (“the new moon”) of the month of Adar and another two weeks after that we will read the scroll of Esther. Joshua Shufman writes:

 “It says about Mordechai: ‘There was a Jewish man in Shushan, the capital” (In Hebrew- “Ish Yehudi” the word ish/man precedes Yehudi/Jew) (Book of Esther 2:5). Why does it say a Jewish man? Is not the adjective Jewish enough? But the text comes to tell us that before you are a Jew, it is your responsibility to be a person, a human being – a mensch. In the spirit of this teaching one can say that in order for the State of Israel to be a Jewish State, it must be humane and fair to every person, including to the minorities within it.”

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Ayala Ronen Samuels is a member of Rabbis for Human Rights

Special thank you to Rabbi Yehiel Grenimann for translation

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