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In a number of ways, Donald Trump is a symptom, as much as the disease: a symptom of an insular, xenophobic, mean-spirited approach to the world around us and the people in it, which has, for a number of complicated reasons, become the default attitude of a growing number of people around the world. The recent story of the couple that stiffed an American-born Hispanic waitress, with the remark that they only “tip citizens”; the anti-Burkini hysteria in France (I know, I know, they have what to be hysterical about, hundreds killed so far by Islamic terrorists, but the idea is to maintain some sang froid, and try to get it right, make some basic distinctions), and the proto-Fascist behavior of Trump and his followers, are all indicative of a bad time, and a bad mood.
What has emerged as one of the central issues, if not the central one, is that of ‘the other’ – the way we relate to people who are not like us, not from around here, not our kin. From the ‘birther’ baloney promoted by Trump and other idiots, to the current nonsense about building a wall, Americans, like many others, seem quite hysterical about figuring out who’s ‘us’ and who’s ‘them’, and keeping ‘them’ out.
Now, much of the fear and nervousness is understandable. People like the recently-arrested Anjem Choudary (and it’s about time), have for years bragged about turning the West Islamic, and bringing Sharia law to London, Paris, and Washington. This is frightening. It is, however, obvious, that this does not represent all Muslims, all foreigners, all strangers, and the West, if it is to retain its basic value system and world view, and not turn into what it is we are fighting, has to get that straight.
This week’s parsha, Ekev, contains one of the many verses in the Torah exhorting us to treat the stranger well, to love the stranger. “”And you shall love the strangers, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” This equation – you were strangers in Egypt, you know what it is like, therefore love the stranger, in various formulations, appears again and again throughout the Torah.
Rashi, the 11th century commentator on the Torah, explains how this equation is meant to work: “Don’t blame others for a blemish that you yourself have.” The “blemish” is the fact of being a גר - a stranger (Rashi, back in Exodus, 22, 20, says that someone who comes from one country to live in another is the Biblical “stranger”). We have that “blemish” in our makeup, as we came from Canaan, where there was a famine, to seek food in Egypt (sound familiar? Contemporary?). Since we have that in our past, we should not look down at, or treat badly, someone in the same position.
There are actually quite a few other ways to understand the “love the stranger, because you were strangers” equation. The Ramban says it refers to the fact that when we, as strangers, were oppressed by Egypt, we cried out to God, He listened, and punished the Egyptians. Therefore, we must ourselves not oppress the stranger or we, in turn, will be punished. Rashi, back in the verse in Exodus we saw a moment ago, adds a spin which he leaves out here in Dvarim: if you treat him badly, he could do the same to you when he gets the chance and say – well, if that’s how one treats strangers, then that’s how I’ll treat you, for you were strangers as well. This parallels the modern understanding that Jews, when they are strangers in a foreign land (which we often are) hope and expect to be treated well. Surely that would dictate us treating strangers well when we have the upper hand, if only for the practical purpose of setting a positive precedent for native-immigrant interaction.
I would like to focus, however, on one particular way to understand this equation. When Rashi says that we should not “blame others for having a blemish which we ourselves have”, he is pointing to a very deep truth about humanity: we are all strangers. We all come from somewhere else. Now, this is a lot less true for some than it is for others: there are communities, even entire nations, which have been in the same place for a very long time. But that is actually a matter of luck. The vagaries of life – famine, flood, fire, and drought; war, bad luck, sickness, or ambition – all of these things typically make migrants, or potential migrants, out of all of us. None of us can ever be sure of where we have come from or, more crucially, where we are going. The human condition is one of being a stranger, someone who is forced by circumstance to be in a strange, frightening, uncomfortable reality. Looked at a bit more deeply, this happens to us all the time; from the first day in school, to moving to a new neighborhood or starting a new job - we are all in a position to be looked down on by those who are a bit more secure in who and where they are. It is the need to see the common nature of this condition, the fact that we all need the love and comfort of those who are less strange to their surroundings than we might be, that this verse teaches us.
To be human is to feel, at times, strange. Sometimes, as in our slavery in Egypt, or with refugees from war, poverty, or other calamities, this finds extreme expression. Sometimes it just means being the new kid on the block. The Torah, again and again, tells us to feel the kinship we share with every stranger, to see ourselves in him or her, and behave accordingly – to love him or her. Of course, (of course!), if some strangers are, actually, enemies, they must be dealt with as enemies. But this is not what is going on in America, and elsewhere, today. What, all too often, is actually happening is a failure to learn and act upon our verse’s basic truth: we are all strangers, we all just got here, and we all are in transit. How people, Jews or Christians, who call themselves religious, fail to see this, is difficult to understand. Please do this basic mitzvah, and don’t vote for nasty, unloving, Donald Trump.
Rabbi Shimon Felix