Rabbi Alexandra Wright, 26 August 2016
Va’ahav’tem et ha-ger ki-gerim heyyitem b’eretz Mitzrayim
“You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Anyone who has had anything to do with raising or teaching young children will know that befriending the stranger is right off the radar. Even for risk averse adults out on their own, or with another person, our moral climate induces suspicion rather than support, evasion rather than encouragement. We instruct children about ‘stranger danger’ and advise them not to have eye contact or conversation with anyone they don’t know. Stories of children going missing, at the prey of paedophiles or child traffickers have turned us into an anxiety-ridden and nervous society.
“You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Thirty-six times in the Torah we are exhorted to befriend the stranger. It is held among the highest of all ethical commands. Yet, we live in a society where prevailing attitudes appear to undermine trust, make us wary of making the effort to help people, welcoming foreigners and protecting the vulnerable.
“You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” What does this verse really mean? The translation is taken from the Women’s Commentary of the Torah. The Hebrew verb is va’ahav’tem – “you shall love the stranger…” It is the same word used earlier on in the passage which exhorts us to “love and serve God…with all your heart and soul.” (verse12). So the translation ‘befriend’ somewhat weakens the meaning of the Hebrew root ahav, which can refer to both divine and human love. It is used for the love of a parent for their child, of a man’s love for a woman, the love of a slave for his master and the love of friends. And the word is used in other ways as well – the appetite for food, love of sleep, the yearning for knowledge, wisdom, righteousness, the love for Jerusalem. How does one ‘love the stranger’? And who is the stranger?
Within the context of the Hebrew Bible, the ger, the stranger, refers to those who are foreign immigrants living in a land that is not native to them. Abraham in Canaan refers to himself as ger v’toshav – a foreigner living amongst others; Moses in his father-in-law’s house (Exodus 2:22) sees himself as stranger in foreign land, Midian. Most of all, and most frequently in the Torah, Israel are strangers in Egypt (Exodus 22.20; 23.9, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19). This self-perception is a key part of Israel’s national consciousness. Based on the memory of this experience, all biblical legal collections demand the favourable treatment of strangers, including their legal and economic protection. There is no superficiality to this law, loving the stranger means reaching out and helping – as Boaz did for Ruth; empathising with their plight of what it must feel like to be a foreigner in a strange land, unfamiliar with the native language, customs and culture, perhaps without close family or resources.
In the months leading up to the Second World War, Britain took in 10,000 unaccompanied children, many of whom were placed with foster families for the duration of the war and even afterwards, when it became known that many of their parents had perished in the camps. Some children, it is true, had difficult and deeply unhappy experiences, but others emerged so grateful for the hospitality, warmth and shelter they were offered.
Britain was not uniformly hospitable to refugees. The history of immigration of Jews, of black slaves in the eighteenth century, of Irish immigrants who arrived in the middle of the nineteenth century, and then again of thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe who fled economic hardship and pogroms at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century and the arrival of Commonwealth citizens from the late fifties and early sixties evoked resentment, racism and xenophobia.
In our own era, we have witnessed the tightening of legislation against asylum seekers, needless detention of young men and women, dispersal of families to accommodation that is often disgraceful and to areas where they are the object of appalling racist abuse. It is little wonder that many asylum seekers in this country suffer from depression, become withdrawn and have difficulty eating and sleeping.
And we have become a less tolerant society, unwilling to find room for immigrants, many of whom simply want to contribute to the economy of this country and to raise their children in safety and with dignity. This country’s dragging of feet in allowing children to and teenagers languishing in disgraceful conditions in the refugee camp in Calais to enter the UK, is nothing short of disgraceful.
The morality of this law that impels us to love the stranger is underpinned by two things: first the experience of slavery in Egypt – ‘for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’, therefore you know the heart of the stranger; and by the Deuteronomist’s faith in a God ‘who shows no favour and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing food and clothing’ (10:17-18).
We cannot always rely on our own human inclination to love the stranger or take on the cause of the most vulnerable, the weakest and unprotected in our society. For human beings can be limited in their thinking and selfish, acting more on instinct than duty or obligation. It is this faith in a moral God who champions the needy that spurs us on, urges us to do more, to alter our attitudes when necessary and to try and make this world a little less harsher for those who live in it.
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