Because You Were Strangers in Egypt
This week’s parsha depicts the Israelites’ experience immediately after receiving the Ten Commandments. As they sit at the foot of Mount Sinai God gives the people a series of civil laws — now that the experience of receiving of the Torah has officially brought the Jewish people together with a central ethos, the next step is to set each person’s rights and responsibilities to one another in their nascent society. These include injunctions against taking advantage of widows and orphans, charging interest, taking and offering bribes, and more. However, these laws start and end with one powerful commandment:
Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt. (Exodus 22:20)
Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be a stranger [literally, “you know the soul of a stranger”], because you were strangers in Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
The Torah goes on to repeat the commandment to not harm the stranger 34 more times over the course of the books of Shemot through Devarim. Clearly there is something central about loving the stranger. What are we meant to learn from this?
The answer lies in the reason the Torah gives — “for you were strangers in Egypt.” How does a people, a nation, typically distinguish itself? By defining itself as what it is not. By excluding those who “don’t belong.” As the Jewish people had been excluded by the Egyptians. God is saying that in forming a nation of our own, we must never, ever fall into this same trap of xenophobia. We must learn from our own history that failure to care for those who different leads to a deficit of empathy, which leads all too quickly to oppression and dehumanization. God didn’t take us out of Egypt in order for us to repeat the same unfortunate patterns of other nations. Rather, we are to recognize that we owe everything to God, and that in truth no human is a “stranger” for we are all created in God’s image. Until we understand this, and internalize it, the Torah is saying by including this commandment in this parsha, and so frequently, we can’t truly become a people of our own.
Questions for the Shabbat Table:
- Have you ever felt like a “stranger,” at times in your life? What helped you feel like less of a stranger?
- Can you think of a time where you helped someone else feel like less of a stranger and more at home?