Timely Holiness

In this week’s installment of a wonderful series of Torah portion interpretations called “Israel in the Parasha (Parasha simply means weekly Torah portion)” [offered on the ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) website], my colleague, Neal Gold, lays out one deeply-rooted, traditional-based argument after another about why Israel’s treatment of African refugees is, as he says it, “nowhere near what we might consider the ‘Torah standard’.” In his commentary, Rabbi Gold spins off of a basic and oft quoted commandment from this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, which includes the 19th chapter of Leviticus, sometimes called the “Holiness Code.” The mandate to which Rabbi Gold refers occurs, in basically the same form, no less than 36 times in the Torah (and, he he points out, some say 46 times). No other mitzvah (commandment) is repeated that much:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃
כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם
בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I, Adonai, am your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

Rabbi Gold goes into much detail about how we should consider three main understandings of this text. The first of these is the word “stranger”, in Hebrew, ger. Then he discusses how we are commanded to do “no wrong” to the ger. Finally, Rabbi Gold teaches about what it mans to “love” the ger “as ourselves.” I encourage you to read Rabbi Gold’s full article. Even if you have some Torah study under your belt, you’ll learn a good deal. I did.

What I will say here is that the thrust of Rabbi Gold’s citations is, as I often say, that Judaism doesn’t trust people to be “nice.” Being hateful, vengeful, xenophobic and elitist is much easier. It’s easier to isolate the stranger, to blame the stranger for all that is going wrong around us, to fear the stranger and to dehumanize the stranger. This is an important instruction for the Israeli government when it comes to its inhumane treatment of African, and other, refugees and it’s an important ethical and moral demand for America as well.

Our mandate, our job, as Jewish Americans, is to insure that we and, in fact, every citizen in America, applies the same sense of commandment, the same passionate and compassionate attention, to the stranger in this land that Rabbi Gold feels must be expected in Israel, our people’s holy land. What is most disturbing about the current anti-immigrant, xenophobic, vitriolic and Machiavellian rhetoric from bully pulpits in America and in Israel is not that those who speak it believe it, it is the thousands who hear it also believe it and are ready to act upon it. That’s where we come in. Chapter 19 of Leviticus also teaches us: hocheach tohiach, הוכח תוכיח, “You shall surely rebuke your neighbor (for doing wrong) for fear that his/her wrong doesn’t become yours!” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” For Israel’s free society and in our free society we must do all we can to civilize our actions and our discussion so that we do not “wrong the stranger”, insure and demand that those among whose roots are elsewhere are to us “as one of our citizens” and that we “love” and care for the stranger in the same way and to the same degree as we love and care for the native-born. Why? Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. For us, it’s always Passover.