This week, the Israelites are instructed that after they enter the Promised Land and begin to farm it, each head of household is to fill a basket with the very first fruits produced there and bring it to Jerusalem. They are to bring the basket before the priest and recite a story that we read every year in our Pesach seders:
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried out to the Eternal, the God of our ancestors, and the Eternal heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Eternal freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents, bringing us to this place and giving us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, Eternal One, have given me. (Deuteronomy 26:5-10)
This small paragraph is the story of the Jewish people, not only in pharaonic times, but also throughout the ages. Like all minorities, we were often helpless and suffered at the mercy of the powers that be. But we somehow managed to survive. "We cried out to the Eternal." While we were unable to deliver ourselves from oppression, we were freed through the grace and decency of a greater Power.
God works in mysterious ways. On rare occasions oppression is relieved by the direct and miraculous power of the Creator. More often, oppression is relieved in other ways: through the grace of God's likeness in the faces of helping neighbors — or helping strangers. God's miracles in Egypt are a metaphor for the miracles of human kindness that can happen anywhere and at any time. In times of great stress, the miracle is greater than at times of ease.
As the passage continues, each head of household is instructed to leave the basket of first fruits and rejoice "together with the [family of the] Levite (ha-Levi) and the stranger (ha-ger) in your midst, all the bounty that the Eternal your God has bestowed upon you and your household" (Deuteronomy 26:11).
"The Levite" (ha-Levi) represents the tribe of Levy, the only tribe that was given no territorial portion in the Land of Israel. The vocation of the Levites was service as priests and aides to both God and the people, so their survival depended on the support of the community. Sustaining the Levites was a collective responsibility like a tax levied to support those who help manage the public good. The stranger (ha-ger) was a foreigner, either brought into the community for special skills, or an immigrant and refugee who sought help and protection among the People of Israel. Israelite landowners were forbidden from excluding either the Levite or the stranger — anyone who was not as privileged as themselves — from the joy of celebration.
In fact, the commandment to care for the stranger is mentioned more times than any other commandment in the Torah — more even than the command to love God (v'ahavta). According to the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer the Great noted that "the Torah warns 36 times, and some say 46 times, not to oppress the stranger" (Babylonian Talmud, Bava M'tzia 59b). The decree is articulated in a number of ways:
"You shall not wrong nor oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:20).
"The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens… for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus19:34).
"For the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing food and clothing — you too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
In all of these, the Torah expects the collective experience of the Jewish people to sensitize us to the plight of foreigners and refugees in our midst.
One might think that after we were redeemed from our foreign status and brought into a land that was to be exclusively our own — the Land of Israel — we would no longer need to be so concerned for strangers living among us. After all, we were to be separate from the peoples living roundabout (Numbers 23:9; Deuteronomy 7:6ff, 14:2, etc.). But the Torah reminds us repeatedly to remember the suffering of the stranger by reminding us that we ourselves suffered as strangers in ancient Egypt. The great Spanish Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides, d.1270), gives a different reason:
In my opinion, [God] is saying, do not oppress a stranger or wrong him [by] thinking that there is no one to save him from your hand, because you know that you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. But I saw the oppression that the Egyptians put to you and I brought vengeance upon them because I see the tears of the oppressed who have no comforter while the hand of the oppressors has power. ... You know that every stranger is disheartened and sighs and cries out, with eyes directed toward God. And God will have mercy on [the stranger] just as God had mercy on you, as it is written, "The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God" (Exodus 2:23). That is to say, it was not because of their merit [that God helped the Israelites], but only because God had mercy on them from the bondage. (Nachmanides on Exodus 22:20)
We live today in a world of many nations that treat their strangers — their minorities — as the ancient Egyptians treated our ancestors in Egypt. In rare occasions, oppression is relieved by the direct and miraculous power of the Creator. More often, oppression is relieved in other ways: through the grace of God's likeness in the faces of helping neighbors — or helping strangers. As Jews who know the suffering of the oppressed, we are especially obligated to reach out to the strangers in our midst. And we are equally obligated not to ignore the cry of the oppressed elsewhere, but to welcome those who flee the horrors of tyranny and persecution.
Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D. teaches medieval Jewish Torah commentary at HUC-JIR and is the Regenstein Professor in Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Los Angeles campus.