Jews have a responsibility to shelter the stranger

Rabbi Jonah Zinn serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association. 


My ancestors were wanderers. 

Abraham left his homeland and all that he knew in exchange for the promise of greatness and blessing for our people. 

Generations later a severe drought in Canaan led Jacob and his household to journey to Egypt. The Torah describes how in Egypt my people became great and very populous, followed by enslavement and, ultimately, redemption. For the 40 years that followed, we wandered in the desert en route to the Promised Land. 

Over the ensuing millennia my people made our home in lands across the globe, from Europe and North Africa to Asia, the Middle East and the Americas. We experienced great prosperity and profound struggle. At times, abundance was long lived, while other stops in our journey were short lived. Through all of it, we were ever aware, in our minds and in the depths of our souls, of this history of wandering and oppression. 

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My people’s collective memory leads us to feel an ongoing responsibility to migrants and refugees.

For many of my people, this sense of responsibility is also rooted in our personal stories and those of our families. Our stories tell of prejudice, discrimination and often much worse. These stories remind my people that we frequently found ourselves as outsiders, living on the margins of society as we struggled to be treated with dignity and respect.

This same sense of responsibility, which emanates from my people’s collective memory and our personal and family experiences, is also given voice in our sacred literature. The Torah portion this week implores us to this calling, saying: “You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Rashbam (the French Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir)  helps connect our personal and community experience to this commandment by observing that “you, better than anyone else, know that seeing that the oppression of strangers is a great wrong, the punishment for violating such a commandment is equally harsh.” 

Given this powerful connection it is no wonder that the Talmud points out that the Torah warns us 36 times about proper behavior toward the stranger.

This responsibility calls us in many different ways. In the most direct sense, it reminds us to speak up for migrants and refugees, an action that is particularly important during this period in history.

We have a responsibility to speak out against the Israeli government’s move to expel nearly 40,000 asylum seekers in the country. Primarily from Eritrea and Sudan, these men, women and children are likely to face imprisonment, indefinite military conscription, additional expulsion, physical harm or even death if they are deported. 

The Reform Movement observed in a statement on this issue  that while it is not reasonable to expect Israel to accept an indefinite number of newcomers, Israel does have the ability to assist and absorb the asylum seekers already in the country. 

“The real threat to its Jewish character,” the statement observes,  “is the refusal to provide shelter to the persecuted.”

Similarly, we have a responsibility to speak out for the 800,000 immigrant youths in danger of detention and deportation because of President Donald Trump’s administration’s decision to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Congress must act now to protect the young people  affected by the potential end of DACA. 

We have a responsibility to push for such legislation and take action to welcome the stranger into our midst.

Our ancestors were wanderers. Today, we find ourselves in a position to help those in need of protection. Our Torah portion this week is a stark reminder of this obligation.