Kedoshim: When the Stranger Resides with Us
Parashat Kedoshim, Leviticus 19:1-20:27, is read during the week that ends on Shabbat, May 14, 2016.
A walk through South Tel Aviv is not generally on the itinerary of a regular trip to Israel. It may as well be another planet from the all-night clubs, fancy restaurants, soaring hotels, and refined art galleries of what was once known as the White City. Most tourists have no idea that the place exists—and they certainly do not know about Holot.
South Tel Aviv in the flesh can break the heart of any thinking Zionist. It houses the largest concentration of Israel’s oft-hidden underclass: Africans from Eritrea and Sudan who have fled some of the world’s most vicious regimes. Any Jew who experiences the reality of South Tel Aviv—its appalling living conditions, overcrowded housing, and air of desperation—must ask, is this the best the Jewish state can muster?
Over 45,000 Eritreans and Sudanese currently reside in Israel, but the government’s treatment of them is nowhere near what we might consider the “Torah standard.”
“Refugee” and “asylum seeker” are legal terms; if these labels were applied to Israel’s African residents, a host of legal protections would kick in. Therefore, the government employs different language: a policy of “temporary protection” or “delay of removal” is in effect. In other words, desperate people who have fled to Israel find themselves in limbo: they cannot legally work or apply for citizenship; they cannot be deported back to where they came from; they have nowhere else to go. The vast majority want “asylum seeker” status, but Israel has granted that status to fewer than 1% of them; it is the lowest rate of recognition in the western world. Some activists accuse government officials of waging a racist campaign of incitement against the Africans, calling them insidious “infiltrators.”
And then there’s Holot. Located in the remote Negev near the Egyptian border, Holot is a detention facility—it’s hard to differentiate it from a prison—where Africans streaming into the country are held without trial. Over the past few years, the Knesset has tried to detain migrants for years on end; the High Court of Justice called the government’s policy “a grave and disproportionate abuse of the right to personal freedom.” As of December 2015, there were 3,300 people in Holot where they may remain up to twelve months. Its capacity is “full” according to the Israeli Immigration Authority.
While Europe dominates headlines with the refugee disaster pouring out of Syria, this subversive crisis to Israel’s soul shamefully has been absent from the American Jewish agenda.
It is difficult to read Parashat Kedoshim and not think of South Tel Aviv or Holot:
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)
These verses are directed towards a Jewish community that is a majority culture, self-assured and established in its own land. The Torah warns that the Jews, when they have become that majority, will have a minority community of non-Jews living among them—and they must assiduously protect the rights of that minority.
To understand this passage requires a better grasp of three familiar concepts: the “stranger,” “do not wrong,” and “you shall love.” Each of these ideas is more nuanced than may appear at first glance.
Who is the ger?
In the Tanach, the meaning of the word ger is very specific: a minority group dwelling among a native majority. The ger is someone who has been transplanted from his native home. In contrast, the word for “native citizen” (“the ger… shall be to you as one of your citizens”) is ezrach. Biblical scholar Baruch Levine suggests that the term ezrach is connected to the linguistic root of a tree firmly rooted in its soil: “…well-rooted, like a robust native tree” (Psalm 37:35). He writes, “If this derivation is correct, an ezrach/citizen is one whose lineage has ‘roots’ in the land, one who belongs to the group that possesses the land.” The ger is the outsider, the stranger in the midst.
Thus the Torah frequently reminds Israel that we know the feelings of the ger, because we’ve had that status before. This is precisely the situation the Jewish people knew in Egypt; a displaced minority among an indigenous majority culture.
What does the Torah mean what it says “you shall not wrong” the ger?
In context, the verb lo tonu / “you shall not wrong” comes from the noun ona’ah, which refers specifically to economic deprivation, manipulation, and taking advantage of another who is in a weaker position. For instance, Leviticus 25:14-17 opens and closes with an injunction not to “wrong” one another, and in between it illustrates this “wronging” as a matter of economic injustice:
בְּמִסְפַּ֤רשָׁנִים֙ אַחַ֣ר הַיּוֹבֵ֔ל תִּקְנֶ֖ה מֵאֵ֣ת עֲמִיתֶ֑ךָ בְּמִסְפַּ֥ר שְׁנֵֽי־תְבוּאֹ֖ת יִמְכָּר־לָֽךְ׃
לְפִ֣י ׀ רֹ֣ב הַשָּׁנִ֗ים תַּרְבֶּה֙מִקְנָת֔וֹ וּלְפִי֙ מְעֹ֣ט הַשָּׁנִ֔ים תַּמְעִ֖יט מִקְנָת֑וֹ כִּ֚י מִסְפַּ֣ר תְּבוּאֹ֔ת ה֥וּא מֹכֵ֖ר לָֽךְ׃ וְלֹ֤א תוֹנוּ֙ אִ֣ישׁאֶת־עֲמִית֔וֹ וְיָרֵ֖אתָ מֵֽאֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃
14When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. 15In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years: 16the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. 17Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I Adonai am your God.
We can conclude that from a p’shat point of view, ona’ah in Leviticus 19 means unfairly leveraging an economic situation where the other person—namely, the ger—is relatively defenseless.
The Mishnah takes this idea one step further: “Just as there is ona’ah in buying and selling, so too is there ona’ah in words.” For the Rabbis, ona’ah—the very acts which are prohibited against the ger and others—is expanded to mean “oppression, wrongdoing, or causing shame.”
Finally, we need to ask: What does it mean “to love the ger as yourself”?
Many have asked how the Torah can command love, the deepest of human emotions. Earlier in Kedoshim we were commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself”; elsewhere the Torah command us to love God (who reciprocally loves us) and, here, to love the stranger.
It is a conundrum if the Hebrew word for love, ahava, simply means deep emotion. However, biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is much more than sentiment; love necessarily entails action:
How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds. This is especially true in Deuteronomy, which speaks of covenantal love. The ger is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing his commandments (Deut. 11:1), and God in turn “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).
Thus, to “love” the ger and to “not wrong him” are inverses of one another. The fulfillment of this Mitzvah means not only not to exploit a person who is politically weaker, but also to support him, to include him in festival celebrations, to allow him to rest on Shabbat, and to provide him with appropriate safety.
It is hard to read these words at the culmination of our Torah portion and, again, not to reflect on our reality. Certainly, “real life” occasionally intrudes on idealism and mitigates our ability to behave according to our highest standards. But still, we have to ask: are we fulfilling what the Torah demands of us?
The words of a modern commentator are jarring:
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) was a major figure in 20th Century Orthodoxy. Rabbi Sorotzkin was born in Belarus, served as the Rabbi of Lutsk in Ukraine, and ultimately fled to Palestine during World War II. There he became the vice chairman of Agudat Yisrael (the main Ashkenazi Orthodox party in Israel at the time); he was certainly not a “liberal” figure by any means. Which makes his comment on this verse particularly compelling:
“In your land” (Leviticus 19:33): You should not say [to the ger] that Eretz Yisrael is just for Jews, as extremists [!!] everywhere claim that their land is just for their own people and minorities have no part in it. For the Land was given to Abraham, who was called “the father of a multitude of nations,” and each nation that believes in the God of Abraham and who clings to his descendants should not be considered a “foreigner” in the land that was promised to him. And this is the lesson of the verse, you shall not wrong him (Lev.19:33): with your ona’at devarim [wronging someone with words, above], as if to deceive him into thinking that he dwells in your land, in a land that is not his.
What would Rabbi Sorotzkin say if he were to observe the plight of the asylum seekers in Israel today?
The Torah commands us to protect the rights and dignity of the stranger no less than 36 terms (and some authorities say 46 times)—it is repeated more than any other Mitzvah in the Torah. When you go home, the text implies, you have an enormous responsibility to care for those who are vulnerable. This injunction is, in fact, the moral barometer of any society. This is one of the resounding lessons of Jewish history: we know the heart of the stranger, because we’ve been that stranger many times: in Egypt, but also in Babylonia, Morocco, Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Ellis Island, and Poland. Woe to those of us who are so estranged from our past that we can’t look into the eyes of the African refugees and see the reflection of our own living history.
Sources for Further Study
In your land. (Leviticus 19:33): You should not say [to the ger] that Eretz Yisrael is just for Jews, as extremists [!!] everywhere claim that their land is just for their own people and minorities have no part in it. For the Land was given to Abraham, who was called “the father of a multitude of nations,” and each nation that believes in the God of Abraham and who clings to his descendants should not be considered a “foreigner” in the land that was promised to him. And this is the lesson of the verse, you shall not wrong him (Lev.19:33): with your ona’at devarim [wronging someone with words, above], as if to deceive him into thinking that he dwells in your land, in a land that is not his.
Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966), Oznaim LaTorah, in Itturei Torah
וְיֵרָאֶה לִי שֶׁאֵין עוֹשִׂין כֵּן לְגֵר תּוֹשָׁב אֶלָּא לְעוֹלָם דָּנִין לוֹ בְּדִינֵיהֶם. וְכֵן יֵרָאֶה לִי שֶׁנּוֹהֲגִין עִם גֵּרֵי תּוֹשָׁב בְּדֶרֶךְ אֶרֶץ וּגְמִילוּת חֲסָדִים כְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. שֶׁהֲרֵי אָנוּ מְצֻוִּין לְהַחֲיוֹתָן שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר לַגֵּר אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ תִּתְּנֶנָּה וַאֲכָלָהּ. וְזֶה שֶׁאָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים אֵין כּוֹפְלִין לָהֶן שָׁלוֹם בְּעַכּוּ”ם לֹא בְּגֵר תּוֹשָׁב. אֲפִלּוּ הָעַכּוּ”ם צִוּוּ חֲכָמִים לְבַקֵּר חוֹלֵיהֶם וְלִקְבֹּר מֵתֵיהֶם עִם מֵתֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וּלְפַרְנֵס עֲנִיֵּיהֶם בִּכְלַל עֲנִיֵּי יִשְׂרָאֵל מִפְּנֵי דַּרְכֵי שָׁלוֹם. הֲרֵי נֶאֱמַר טוֹב ה’ לַכּל וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו. וְנֶאֱמַר דְּרָכֶיהָ דַרְכֵי נֹעַם וְכָל נְתִיבוֹתֶיהָ שָׁלוֹם.
It seems to me that we must treat a ger toshav [a minority who resides among us] with acts of decency and kindness just as we would for any Jew. We are commanded to sustain them, as it is written in Deuteronomy 14:21: “You shall not eat any animal that has not been properly slaughtered; give it to the stranger in your community that he may eat it.” Though our sages counseled against repeating a greeting to them, that statement applies to idolaters and not to resident aliens. Our sages commanded us to visit them when they are ill, to bury their dead in addition to the Jewish dead, and to support their poor in addition to the Jewish poor, all for the sake of peace. As it is written in Psalm 145:9, “Adonai is good to all, and God’s mercies extend of all God’s works,” and in Proverbs 3:17, “The Torah’s ways are pleasant, and all its paths are peace.”
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim u’Milchamot 10:12
ולא נתנה התורה אלא על מנת לקדש שמו הגדול. מכאן אמרו ירחיק אדם את עצמו מן הגזל בין מן הישראל בין מן העכו”ם ולא עוד אלא משום שכל הגונב מן העכו”ם לסוף הוא גונב מן הישראל ואם הוא נשבע לעכו”ם לסוף הוא נשבע לישראל ואם הוא מכחש לעכו”ם לסוף הוא מכחש לישראל ואם הוא שופך דמים לעכו”ם לסוף הוא שופך דמים לישראל.
The Torah was given only to hallow God’s great name, as it is written, You are my servant, Israel in whom I glory (Isaiah 49:3). Thus, [you need to treat with integrity] everyone, Jewish or not; indeed, with anyone you encounter in the marketplace. One who steals from a non-Jew inevitably will steal from a Jew; anyone who cheats a non-Jew inevitably will cheat a Jew; anyone who swears falsely to a non-Jew will inevitably swear falsely to a Jew; anyone who acts deceitfully to a non-Jew will inevitably act deceitfully to a Jew; and anyone who sheds the blood of a non-Jews will inevitably shed the blood of a Jew.
Midrash Tanna d’bei Eliyahu Rabba, Chapter 26
The moral teaching that Jews must care for non-Jews who live in their land, an imperative which the Prophets of Israel constantly preached, is one of the fundamental teachings of the Torah. Its psychologically sophisticated characteristic stems from the observation that sensitivity to the non-Jew’s vulnerability is embedded in the Jew’s own memory of vulnerability. If we should forget that we are vulnerable, as the left suggest, how can we respond to the suffering of others? A.D. Gordon’s call not to treat the Palestinians in the same way that the anti-Semites treat us echoes the words of the Torah. The Torah teaches us that our experience as a minority in exile demands from us greater care and concern with non-Jews who live among a Jewish majority. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:24). The first golden rule of ruling over a non-Jewish minority is that of empathy with their distress—the distress of the stranger in the land.
Einat Ramon, “The Ethics of Ruling a Jewish State with a Large Non-Jewish Minority,” in Contemporary Jewish Ethics and Morality: A Reader, Elliot N. Dorff & Louis E. Newman, eds. (1995)
For more information about African migrants in Israel:
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, http://hotline.org.il/en/main/
 Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible, 2000, p.1653.
 Milgrom, p.1706.
R. Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznaim LaTorah, in Itturei Torah on Leviticus 19:33.