Parashat Hashavua for Eikev
Reverend Sam Zwarenstein
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW
This week’s parasha includes the commandment to love the convert. We learn: “V’ahavtem et hager ki geirim hayitem b’eretz mitzrayim - You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).
In the Mishneh Torah (codification of Halachah [Jewish law]), Maimonides explains; “The love for the proselyte, who came and embraced the protection beneath the wings of the Shechinah, rests upon two mandatory commandments, one because he is included in the commandment concerning a neighbour, and the other because he is a stranger” (Mishneh Torah, Human Dispositions 6:4). He further explains that this is taken from the quoted verse in this week’s parasha. The Mishneh Torah continues to clarify that God commanded us on the love for the stranger as the same obligation for us to love God, citing the verse prior to this one (Deut. 10:18), that God loves the stranger.
Our sages also noted the repeated emphasis on the stranger in biblical law. The Talmud (in Tractate Bava Metziah 59b) teaches us that the Torah warns against the wronging of a ger (stranger) in no less than 36 (and some say 46) places. The reasoning for this includes the fact that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and that we know how it feels to be treated as the stranger.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also comments that: “A stranger, in particular, is sensitive to his or her status within society. He or she is an outsider. Strangers do not share with the native born a memory, a past, a sense of belonging. They are conscious of their vulnerability. Therefore we must be especially careful not to wound them by reminding them that they are not ‘one of us.”
Sometimes the stranger is mentioned along with the poor; at others, with the widow and orphan. On several occasions the Torah specifies: “You shall have the same law for the stranger as for the native-born.” Not only must the stranger not be wronged; he or she must be included in the positive welfare provisions of Israelite/Jewish society. But the law goes beyond this; not only must the stranger not be oppressed, but the stranger must also be loved.
And then we learn that other commentators say that the very sanctity that Israelites feel as children of the covenant may lead them to look down on those who lack a similar lineage. Therefore we are commanded not to feel superior to the stranger, but instead to remember the degradation our ancestors experienced in Egypt. As such, it becomes a command of humility in the face of strangers.
The reminder in this week’s parasha to love the stranger is the one that makes it into the 613 mitzvot. It is also different to almost all of the other times the ger (stranger) is mentioned. The instruction to love the stranger forms the basis of a positive commandment, one where we are told to actively welcome and embrace the stranger, rather than other mitzvot warning us against wronging the stranger. It is an emphasis on the importance of reaching out to, respecting and looking after the stranger, that will allow us to be more compassionate and ready to treat the stranger in an equitable manner.
Through these actions and perspectives we see the stranger as one of us, removing the desire to wrong them, or remind them that they are not one of us. We not only have the obligation to ensure that we do not wrong the stranger or remind them that they are not one of us, but that we actively seek to make them feel welcome and loved. After all, if God loves the stranger, why can’t we?