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We are Family, My Brothers, and My Sisters, and Me
We are Family, My Brothers, and My Sisters, and Me
The mitzvah to love the ger is the only mitzvah in Parashat Kedoshim which is connected to our exile in Egypt: "As one of your citizens shall be the stranger that resides among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Vayikra 20:34). What can we learn from this connection?
In the introduction to her commentary on the book of Shemot, Nechama Leibowitz asks: What was the purpose of the exile in Egypt? Why did the Israelite people have to endure servitude, oppression, and suffering? After exploring a number of possible answers, she writes:
But the Torah itself supplies a more specific reason for exile - an educational one - which draws on the experience of Egyptian exile and bondage as a motive for observing the commandments: "Do not wrong the ger, the stranger, and do not oppress him, for strangers you were in the land of Egypt." (Ex. 22:20) .... [The] reason for the Egyptian exile ... was, that they themselves should experience the taste of slavery and humiliation. They were to be made to realize just what it felt like to be subjected to violence and domination of man by man.
Our being freed by God and redeemed from Egypt creates a broad religious obligation to serve and obey God in all ways, but the specific experiences of exile and slavery have imprinted deep in our collective memory what it truly means to be enslaved, mistreated, and marginalized. The Torah here reminds us that we were slaves in Egypt when commanding us how to treat the stranger, and elsewhere when commanding us how we are to treat our slaves and how to care for the orphan and the widow. With wealth and power, we might easily become callous and oblivious to those at the margins of society. By reminding us of a shared past, the Torah hopes to evoke not just our sympathy, but our empathy; that we might not just pity these people, but that we might also see that we are all the same; that we have been them, and that we could be them again. The conclusion is obvious: we must treat them as we would want to be treated, for they are us and we are them.
Empathy is central to the mitzvah of loving the ger. The Gemara notes in a number of places that, although we are commanded to love our fellow Jew, we have a special obligation to love the ger. As Rambam puts it, "The Torah states, 'You shall love the ger,' just as God commanded us to love God, as it states, 'And you shall love the Lord your God'" (Laws of Character Traits 6:4). The comparison to themitzvah to love God is this: love of our neighbor could refer to how we act towards our neighbor - do unto your neighbor as you would have him do unto you - but to love God can only refer to true, emotional love. This, then, is what is distinctive about the mitzvah to love the ger. It is not enough to act; we must actually love, identify and empathize.
The Torah commands us regarding our actions and our emotions at this point because it can be so easy for us to ignore or dismiss the suffering and marginalization of those that are not part of our group or do not share our social status. We can be commanded to act, but in order to even realize that there are those who are suffering and certainly to understand what they are experiencing and how they would most want to be treated, we must work to exercise our empathy.
Who is the ger? In the Rabbinic understanding, the ger is the convert, the person who has come from the outside to be one of us. But in the simple sense of the verse, the ger is the stranger, or more accurately, the sojourner, the resident alien. He is not the nakhri, the foreigner who lives in another country, nor is he the ezrach, the citizen. He is the ger, the one who lives in the land of Israel, under our dominion, but is still not a citizen, not one of us. This is who we were in the land of Egypt: strangers who took up residence in a foreign land.
For the Rabbis, the ger in the Torah means something else: someone who was once not one of us but now is. Understood in this way, the mitzvah remained relevant even when Jewish identity was based primarily on religious peoplehood rather than nationality. The moral obligation to treat such a person as equal is all the greater when the person is no longer an outsider but is actually one of us, when they have become a Jew by choice. Such a person should be given recognition and acclaim for willingly embracing the Jewish religion and the Jewish people. And yet, there are those who are likely to see her as an interloper and an outsider, as someone who doesn't truly belong, and it is possible that she will see herself in a similar light. In this case, the danger is perhaps not so much that a different law will be applied to the person, but that she will be pushed to the margins, rejected and excluded from true membership in the community.
Like the orphan and the widow, who lack the protection of a father and a husband, the ger lacks the protection of family and is vulnerable to exploitation. But even more than the orphan or the widow, the ger may be struggling for a sense of belonging and membership. He is likely to feel that he has no true home. Our obligation is to ensure that we are doing everything in our power to give him a sense of belonging so that he knows he is truly our equal and one of us.
As a community, we are far from living up to this mandate, especially in cases of Jews by choice of different racial backgrounds or those who have some other markers of difference. If we cannot always reach back to our exile in Egypt to help us identify and empathize with others, we can try to connect to more recent experiences, our otherness in American society, for example, when our Jewishness marked us as different, when quotas and unwritten rules kept us excluded from universities, housing, and jobs. Now that we have achieved success and equality, it is easy for us to forget this past. This is when we must respond to the mandate of memory, empathy, and equality. To do so, we must change our self-understanding and begin to realize that our community is not monochromatic but made up of diverse people from diverse backgrounds, that no one is at the margins, and that everyone is an equal part.
This mitzvah is not limited to the ger; it can be applied to anyone who might find himself marginalized or without a secure sense of belonging. Thus, Sefer HaChinukh writes: "We can learn from this valuable mitzvah to have compassion on [or we could say "empathy for"] a person who is in a place that is not his homeland and the place where his family comes from, that we should not walk by him when we see that he is without anyone to provide him aid or assistance" (Mitzvah 431).
I believe that this applies most aptly in the case of people with disabilities, be they physical, educational, development, or social-emotional. There are certainly times when such people are told directly that they do not belong: when they are given mean stares or when their parents are told that they cannot attend a school because they would not "fit in" to the student body. But there are just as many, if not more, times when the message is less direct: when a shul lacks a ramp or Braillesiddurim, or when no one asks a parent why their child hasn't been at shul. At times like these we need what are we doing wrong, but we also need to ask what it is that we are not doing that is telegraphing that some are not welcome.
Here again we must respond to the mandate of memory, empathy, and equality. If we do not have a shared past when it comes to disabilities, we do have a shared future. There is a saying that the world is not divided into those with disabilities and those without, but into those with disabilities and those who do not yet have disabilities. God willing, we will all live long lives, long enough to suffer some of the challenges that come with old age: problems with mobility, hearing, and eyesight to name a few. If we can imagine our own future, if we can imagine how we will want to be treated when we need accommodations made for us, if we can exercise our empathy and imagination, then hopefully we can begin to build diverse communities in which everyone has a place and no one is pushed to the margins.