Marc KatzComment

Why Bother Caring for the Stranger? (Parashat Mishpatim)

Marc KatzComment
Why Bother Caring for the Stranger? (Parashat Mishpatim)

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20)

We are nation of strangers. Woven into the fabric of Jewish existence is a sense of profound of alienation with the outside world. In fact, nearly all of our ancestral giants felt, at key points in their life, like they were wanderers, lost in a sea of the unknown and unfamiliar.

When Abraham sought to bury his wife Sarah, he proclaimed that he was a stranger (Genesis 23:4). When King David penned the Psalms he included a plea to God, “I am a stranger in the land; do not hide your commandments from me” (Psalm 119:19). Later in his life, after designating his son to build the Temple in Jerusalem, David exclaimed, “We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope” (1 Chron. 29:15).

In fact, our shared experience of being strangers is the foundation pillar of Jewish ethics. The stranger is the emblematic “other.” Ibn Ezra, one of Judaism’s most important Biblical commentators, observes that the commandment to care for the stranger which is found in this week’s Torah portion is the basis for why we should care for all the disadvantaged among us. He writes, “And the same way that the text reminds you that the stranger does not have power, so too the widow and the orphan, who are Israelite, have no power.”

In essence, Ibn Ezra believes that care for the stranger is a rehearsal in compassion. It is the agar dish of altruism. Benevolence and kindness are self-reinforcing. The more we see the humanity of others the more apt we are concern ourselves with the well-being of the outside. Since the stranger has done nothing to deserve your grace, your care for them will assure that you become accustomed to guarding the dignity of others and that you are prepared to give everyone in your world a shot at your love.

Yet, caring for the stranger does something perhaps more profound. It is a check on short memory and careless hypocrisy. It is no accident that the commandment to avoid harming a stranger ends with the words  “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). Time and again, our tradition reminds us that even when we grow comfortable and our past looks like an eon away, we must remember how, only yesterday, we were in the exact same vulnerable place. Thus our tradition says:

Why is there added (Exodus 22:20) For strangers were you in the land of Egypt? We are taught: Rabbi Nathan says: “Do not reproach your neighbor with a fault which is also yours.” (Ein Yaakov Bava Metzia 4:12)

Or as Rashi reminds us: If you vex him he can vex you also by saying to you, ‘ You also descend from strangers.’ (Rashi on Ex 22:20).

We all carry the burden of history on our shoulders. At moments we need to celebrate our people’s triumphs, but at other times we need remember our struggles. Hillel once taught, “what is hateful to you, do not do to another.” Yet, if we don’t remember the hate of our past, if we whitewash our history because it is too pain or tedious to recall, we won’t understand the scope of what is “hateful to us” and we won’t be able to apply it to others. When we allow our common story of alienation to shine forth, we become more aware of the suffering of our neighbor. Then after seeing their struggle, suddenly we lose the excuse that we failed to notice. Instead, we must face the fact that if we do nothing we are acting not out of ignorance but out of callousness.

However, of all the reasons for why it is so important to care for the stranger, Nachmanides teaches us perhaps the deepest lesson. He explains that since a stranger has no one to save him, he must rely on God. And just as God saved us when we were oppressed strangers, God will save all the strangers who are struggling in our midst. God’s mission is to help the stranger. Nachmanides reminds us that God’s watchword is “...I see the tears of the oppressed who has no comforter and has no power from the hand of their oppressor” then “I save every person from the hand of one stronger than he.” In essence God’s hand in history is felt most acutely upon the collapsing backs of the weak, holding them up, redeeming them, and supporting them.

We are a people commanded to engage in imitatio deo. We are implored to step into God’s footsteps and act along the Divine example. For that reason, every time that we care for the stranger we become a little more like God. We move one step closer to the Divine. The goal of the ethical person is to mimic God’s virtues. The highest virtue of heaven is care for the weak and oppressed.

We live in a world that teaches us to fear the stranger rather than care for him. As our country turns away from the Torah's ethic of love it becomes all the more important for the Jewish people to lean into it. Over 3000 years of writing has bolstered the command to help those who are “other.” It matters less whether Ibn Ezra, Rashi, or Nachmanides was right with their reasoning. What matters is that they cared and so should we.

For more writings by Rabbi Katz check out his book, The Heart of Loneliness or his blog.