Why we welcome the ‘other’

By Rabbi Josef Davidson

At my most recent checkup, my physician shared with me some of his family history. It was a particularly difficult time for his family, as only recently had the hospital that his father and two Jewish physicians founded closed its doors forever. 

As he was recounting his family’s story, he reminded me of the prejudice that Italian immigrants faced when entering the United States. It reminded me of the anti-Semitism that has arisen periodically over the nearly 250 years since the United States  became an independent nation. 

He then asked me if I knew the origins of the derogatory term “wop,” often applied to Italian-Americans even to this day. I knew of the pejoratives with which Jews had been labeled, but I did not know about this one applied to Italians. He told me that  many Italians came to the United States without papers, so their entry papers were stamped with the letters WOP, meaning Without Papers.

I recount this incident to remind myself that throughout the history of this great nation, there have been times when the minds, the hearts and the borders of this country were not very open; when immigrants were not always welcomed with open arms; when Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty were not always actualized. Each generation seems to forget that they, too, were once immigrants, that they, too, were once resident aliens, strangers. 


This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, is a collection of laws concerning a multiplicity of ethical, social and ritual laws. Among them is the injunction, “You shall not wrong a ger or oppress him/her, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22.20)  

What is this word, ger/gerim? What does it mean? This noun is related to the verb lagur, which means “to reside.” A ger is a resident alien, someone who chooses to live among the people rather than fated by birth to do so. 

There were at least two types of gerim: one was the resident alien, the ger toshav; the other was the ger tzedek, the Jew-by-choice. The latter, according to Jewish law, must be treated as a native Jew. The former, the resident alien, however, requires special protections akin to those provided in the next verse of the Torah portion to the widow and the orphan. 

It is a brave act, even if it is often an act of desperation, for a person to leave his/her native land to reside in a foreign country. Imagine moving to a place where the language is different, the customs are different, the opportunities are different and the laws are different. How does one make a living? Nevertheless, people are coming to America every day seeking a better life for themselves. 

The story of the Israelites, which is the substance of the entire book of Exodus, is a story of a people who had come to Egypt to escape the great famine. Because of their relationship to Joseph, the Viceroy of Egypt, they were welcomed with open arms and given a rich grazing area in which to sojourn, though as shepherds, they were an anathema to the native population. 

As the book of Exodus begins, the Israelites have grown numerous, and “strangers,” or “aliens,” were viewed with suspicion and contempt. They were pressed into slavery as a means of curbing their growth while building the monuments of Egypt’s native dynasty. Recalling that they were gerim implies both the welcoming and the oppression of the Israelites. 

Ideally, in recalling that “we were strangers/resident aliens,” we learn to treat others, who are escaping poverty, hunger, oppression, abuse, repression or war, with some measure of compassion. We can see the stranger in ourselves and embrace them, rather than viewing them as invaders. 

Throughout Jewish history, we have been perceived as “other.” Even the earliest name for our ancestors, Hebrews (Ivrim), has been interpreted as coming from across, from the other side. The majority of Jews in America are descendants of Eastern European Jews, who came here to escape oppression, poverty, even destruction. We have known the pain of isolation, of rejection, of vilification. 

“You shall not wrong a ger or oppress him/her, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22.20) 

Thirty-three times, our Torah reminds us of our past as a lesson in how to treat people who choose to live among us, whether as Jews (citizens) or as resident aliens. It is a corollary to the verses that all human beings are created in the Divine Image, regardless of race, of creed, of sexual preference, of nation of origin, of gender identity, or of financial status.  

Because we have experienced great hospitality and great oppression and rejection as “others,” we have an obligation to practice the former and eschew the latter. Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson, affiliated with Congregation B’nai Amoona, is retired and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.