Parshat Eikev by Sam Fleischacker
Photo by Shayld
This week we are commanded to love the “stranger.” (10:19) Who is this stranger? Halakha tells us that it is the convert. This is disappointing, if we are looking in the Torah for signs of concern for humanity in general, and it seems a clear stretch of the verse. For what 10:19 tells us, more precisely, is to love the stranger “because you were strangers in Egypt.” This echoes two verses in Mishpatim (Ex 22:20 and 23:9), which warn us against oppressing the stranger and note that we “know the soul of the stranger” from our experience in Egypt. We were, however, certainly not converts in Egypt. Rather, in knowing the soul of the stranger from our experience in Egypt, we know a generally human kind of suffering. P’shat in these verses would seem to demand that we not oppress non-Jews, should we ever rule over them as the Egyptians did over us.
That is exactly what Nachmanides says about these verses (commentary to Ex 22:20). Knowing the soul of the stranger, for the Ramban, is knowing that strangers always feel humiliated, and cry out to God as we did in our bondage to the Egyptians. And God’s admonition to us not to oppress strangers is a reminder that God always “sees the tears of those who are oppressed and have no comforter,” and saves everyone (col adam) from those who are stronger than they are. So the strangers whose experience we shared in Egypt are the “col adam” who have suffered under people stronger than they are, and the strangers we are not to oppress are the outsiders who have no comforters in our community and must look to God alone for help.
Now there are good reasons why the halachic system does not understand these verses in this way. In the first place, we have rightly worried, over the past two millenia, that most of our non-Jewish neighbors oppose our very existence, and been concerned, therefore, to keep our distance from them rather than seeking their welfare. In the second place, it is hard for any legal system to impose requirements on how its adherents act toward complete outsiders to the community. For the outsiders would then seem to have rights, vis-a-vis the community members, and it is hard to see how they could claim such rights without somehow entering the community. So it makes sense that when the rabbis tried to give legal force to the idea of not oppressing strangers, they understood those “strangers” to belong, in some way, to the Jewish community.
But most halachic authorities recognize that the Torah makes extra-legal as well as legal demands on us — being holy (Lev. 19:2), for instance, or pursuing the right and the good (Deut. 6:18), or loving God with all our hearts and all our souls — and it is not unreasonable to suppose that “loving the stranger” needs to be understood in this way. Moreover, the context of our verse in Eikev renders it more amenable to extra-legal uses than its parallels in Mishpatim. Immediately before 10:19 we are reminded of God’s impartiality, transcendence of all other powers, and defense of and love for the weakest human beings. The idea that the word “stranger” figures in this context as part of God’s plan for the universe, rather than (just) part of our legal system — that we should understand it as the “God of gods, Lord of lords,” the El, hagadol, hagibor v’hanora (10:17) might understand it — makes very good sense. And that supreme Being presumably cares about all sorts of strangers, not just converts to Judaism. Verses 18-19 indicate that we are to emulate this sort of love, to care about all humanity as God does.
Indeed, the Jewish philosopher Hermann Cohen suggested that it is only in loving the stranger that we fully express our monotheism. We understand God as truly the ruler of the entire universe, creator and guardian of all humankind, only when we recognize Him as the God of the stranger and not just of our kin. Loving the stranger is the most difficult of loves, the greatest challenge to our inclination to limit our concerns to the people and social system we know. But to care just about what we know is to worship ourselves, and to limit God to a being who takes care of the Jews is idolatry. True monotheism, a true recognition of God as source of or ruler over the entire universe, requires us to see God in the unfamiliar, the alien, as well as the familiar — in the complete outsider and not just in our neighbors.
In practice this means, for Jews in Israel, seeing God in the Palestinians, and for Jews here in America, seeing God in the Latina/os and other immigrants who work in our restaurants and stores and homes. The God of gods, the Lord of lords, the El, hagadol, hagibor v’hanora, stands with all these people against their oppressors just as He stood with us in Egypt, cares for them as He does for us, and is ready to deliver them, as he does col adam, from one who is stronger than them, even when that stronger person is a Jew. We were not delivered from Egypt to set up another ethnocentric system that oppresses outsiders. We were delivered, instead, precisely to spread the message that the true God cares for all humanity (that is how we become a “holy nation”). And that requires that we understand “love the stranger” broadly and richly: not just in legal terms but in the expansive terms that allow us to mirror God’s own love, and help bring about God’s own justice.