Putting noble impulses above selfish ones


We cannot avoid encountering the other – the stranger, the foreigner, the alien. How should we react? Do we recoil or do we welcome them, do we enrich ourselves at their expense or do we support them? Amidst several dozen laws, Mishpatim, curiously, includes two laws against oppressing the stranger, from which our teachers have taught us multiple lessons.

“Do not oppress or wrong a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (22:20) The first lesson comes from a careful reading: two phrases – not to “oppress” nor “wrong.” Some see mere poetic parallelism but our Sages teach their great practical religious meaning, recognizing two separate sins: monetary oppression, and verbal oppression. We may not exploit the “stranger” financially, nor may we remind him of his “outsiderness” for advantage.

The second lesson: In 23:9, a similar law appears: “Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The question is: What does this new clause, “for you know the feelings of a stranger,” add?

In her “Studies,” Nehama Leibovitz summarizes RaSHI who observes that 23:9, “for you know the feelings of a stranger,” addresses attitude and actions born of empathy from experience, whereas 22:20 is derived from self-preservation. On 22:20 RaSHI comments that the stranger may respond, “You were also strangers; is this not ‘the pot calling the kettle black?'” In other words, the Torah acknowledges that treating the stranger well is also a smart policy.

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Nehama explains that the empathy born of our experience is addressed by Torah command to further shape our souls so that we do not become arrogant overlords, fulfilling our personal desires at the expense of the stranger. The value of RaSHI’s comment on 22:20, she explains, is “Because a history of alienation and slavery is by itself no guarantee that you will not oppress the stranger in your own country once you have gained independence and left it all behind you.”

But there is a third lesson. Nehama concludes with RaMBaN, Nachmanides. The Torah commands us no less than 36 times about the welfare of the stranger (Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 59b). Nehama details, “No other mitzvah – not even to love God, keep the Shabbat, circumcision, refrain from forbidden foods, uttering falsehood, or theft …both positive and negative” is more often commanded. RaMBaN teaches that these commands let us and the stranger know that just as God redeemed our ancestors from Egypt, He will also protect the stranger.

It is distressing that we seek our “values” in vague and shifting general societal ethics. Such a weak foundation does not really preserve the good and righteous. Modern societal values are predominantly a human creation with only tenuous ties to religion and devolve into whatever seems right by public opinion. And we, and our children, and our children’s children, will be blown to and fro in such wind-driven ethics, for in the end, they will reflect what we want them to be, rather than what is right. And of course, we do so at the expense of our great and noble Torah, and our Source in God.

So the RaMBaN’s comment is pertinent. Faith in God as our Redeemer provides strength to the outsider, direction to the insider by strengthening our yetser ha-tov (noble impulses) in our souls against our yetser ha-ra (selfish impulses), and serves as a beyond-the-horizon warning to those who would exploit. Redemption, just as it was then from Egyptian servitude and later from Soviet tyranny, may not always come as soon as we would want, but those who place their faith in God and find the source of their virtues in Torah and in its mitzvot, assuredly have the best chance of building a better world with solid foundations.

Without prejudicing the fair and just arguments against illegal immigration, as Jews and as Americans, we are wiser, more noble, and more faithful to our heritage when we turn to Torah and the deep wisdom and insights of our teachers.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Seth D Gordon serves Traditional Congregation and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.