Who Is the Stranger? Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)




Who Is the Stranger?
Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18) 
Shabbat Parashat Mishpatim: 25 Shevat 5778
 כ"ה בשבט תשע״ח



"You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 22:20)

כ  וְגֵר לֹא-תוֹנֶה, וְלֹא תִלְחָצֶנּוּ:  כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.  (שמות כב:כ)

Ger (or Stranger) is the Hebrew term used by the Torah in reference to what we might today term the "Otherliving amongst us. We often speak about celebrating diversity, pluralism and embracing people who are different from us, but how do our actions reflect our lofty ideals? 



In this week's Torah portion, we are commanded not to wrong or oppress the stranger; the rationale for the commandment is quite clear -- empathy: you were strangers in the Land of Egypt and know what it feels like to be the stranger/other! How strongly does the Torah feel about this precept? Well, the Torah reiterates this dictum several times. How many times does it mention the Ger? A whopping 36 times! You may notice that the number 36 is 18 multiplied by 2; whereby 18 is the number symbolizing LIFE in Judaism, since the Hebrew letters chet and yod make up the word Chai, as in L'chaim (To Life!). In other words, 36 mentions of the stranger is pretty significant!

According to Professor Yael Maly of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in her book אמנות כפרשנות or Art as Commentary, the fact that the stranger is mentioned 36 times emphasizes the Torah's sensitivity to the plight of the weak and the oppressed in society, as well as indicating that there is a serious failure in society that needs to be corrected. This exemplifies the Latin saying, "Repetitio mater studorium" (repetition is the mother of learning), carved into an ancient Roman ruin. Only when we repeat this perpetually will we hear, heed and act!


"Repetitio mater studorium" [can you find the inscription?]

Maly brings the illustration below from the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Sephardic (Spanish) Haggadah that dates back to the first half of the 14th century, but that is now in the collection of the National Museum of Bosnia in Sarajevo. She offers commentary on the illustration below in connection with the above-mentioned verse about protecting the stranger (Exodus 22:20).



What are we looking at in this artwork? A family reclining at the Passover table with all of its ritual objects. The work is rich in colour, wine goblets, the Seder Plate, and is adorned with gold, reflecting the prestige of the occasion and the affluence of the family commemorated in the picture. In terms of the subjects portrayed in the illustration, from right to left, a father holding his wine cup, perhaps a son and other family members, and in the lower left-hand corner there is a woman of colour, all of them celebrating the Passover Seder together. Who is this woman and what is her connection to the family?



The young woman of colour is simply dressed and she, too, holds a golden wine goblet, albeit smaller than that of the young boy. Eugen Verber, who published research on the Sarajevo Haggadah, claims that she is an African convert to Judaism. Interestingly, the word for convert in Judaism that developed over time is also Ger. While it is true that the meaning of the word Ger changes over time from stranger to convert, the commonality can be found in the linguistic root for Ger meaning "dwelling," as in "the one dwelling among you." Judaism, being  both a religion and a national identity, understands that a convert is not just a "believer" in the Jewish faith, but one who "dwells among us" or becomes a member of the common destiny of his/her People.

Assuming this is an African gyoret (convert), as Verber and Maly contend, what is she doing in Spain with this Caucasian Jewish family? It is known and documented that African slaves were brought to serve wealthy Spanish families, including Jewish families, from the beginning of the 14th century. Many of these slaves converted to Christianity and some to Judaism. 

Maly suggests that the modern observer might look upon the positioning of the young African woman on the opposite side of the table as distancing her from the rest of the attendees or as a sign of disrespect to her. From a 14th-century perspective, however, the very fact that the African convert participates in the Seder, holds a  cup of wine (a symbol of freedom), and is included in the family portrait (immortalizing the members of the family in the family Haggadah), is a very powerful expression of the famous Haggadah quotation, "Let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover."    
"כל דכפין ייתי וייכול, כל דצריך ייתי ויפסח"

If this woman is, in fact, a slave, we might be tempted to scoff at the absurdity of any slave sitting at the Seder table, a literal celebration of freedom from slavery. I would, however, prefer to pause and appreciate the positive meaning of this illustration within its historical context as exhibiting a daring counter-cultural ideal for its time; that is, that our freedom must make us both sensitive and sympathetic to the stranger/other. Perhaps the African woman  has been redeemed by the family? We cannot know.

I would further encourage us to allow this image to trigger reflection on our own adherence to the principle of protecting the stranger. Is there anything hypocritical in our own treatment of the convert, the "other" or the stranger in our own times?

For example, we are in the midst of a vigorous debate in Israel and among Jews abroad about African refugees who are at risk of being deported from Israel. Many Israelis stand in staunch protest against this deportation of refugees for the very reason the Torah suggests that we should protect the stranger. 

There was a protest just last Thursday night in Jerusalem.


This is a picture taken at that rally. Notice that the African man in the red sweater is holding up a picket sign quoting Deuteronomy 10:19 "You shall love the stranger because You were strangers in Egypt." Remember, Egypt is in Africa. 

"וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם."

So, I ask the question: Who is the Stranger? Could it be me?

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Yonatan

* A Haggadah is an ancient text that is read each year at the Passover table guiding the evening's traditional ceremony.




Comments

  1. Rabbi, a wonderful Parsha thank you. The relevance to today's issues are so pointed and so poignant. Sue Zyngier

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    1. Thank you Sue for reading and commenting! I am interested to hear from readers, please continue to read and comment. I am curious to hear how people are finding out about my blog, how did you hear about it?

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  2. Thank you Rabbi. I've been enjoying reading your parashot on a weekly basis. Looking forward to more...

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    1. Shalom Thu! I am so happy to hear that you have been enjoying these Torah thoughts. Please keep reading and commenting. I am very interested in hearing other people's thoughts and questions. How did you find my blog?

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