For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt: Welcoming the Immigrant on Passover
Passover is approaching–and our imperative to advocate for immigration reform is as timely as ever. Leviticus commands, “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [Leviticus 19:33-34]. This principle, to welcome the stranger, is ultimately repeated 35 times in the Torah—more than any other commandment.
In this passage and others, the Torah uses the word “רגּ (ger),” which can be alternatively translated as stranger, sojourner, immigrant or foreigner—generally understood as someone not born in the land where one lives, but living there now. Leviticus later commands, “Ye shall have one law, for the ger as for the home-born” [Levitius 24:22]. We are commanded to treat the ger as an equal under the law.
At our Passover Seder, we remember our people’s history as strangers in Egypt, but of course this is not the only time Jews have been strangers. From Ancient Israel to Ancient Egypt, from Eastern Europe to North Africa and Spain and the Middle East, and today around the world from the United States and Canada to Argentina and France, our history is one of constant migration. In all of these lands, we have been strangers, and our fate and successes have depended on the manner in which we were treated in each place—what professions and opportunities were open to us, what sort of abuse and discrimination we faced.
During Passover, we recall with bitterness our time in Egypt, and pledge to retell the story of our journey to freedom. But we would be remiss to do so without keeping in mind the important lessons of that journey. We are obligated to treat immigrants with the same respect as the native-born, bearing in mind our own experiences—from Egypt on—as abused and mistreated sojourners in strange lands.
Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents came to the United States for fundamental and universal reasons. In search of a better life for their children, economic opportunity, freedom from discrimination and persecution, or to escape violence, millions of Jews emigrated here en masse at the turn of the 20th century. Today, in the face of grave global inequalities and deeply unsafe communities, millions are seeking to come here for the same reasons. But our immigration system is broken. There are simply not enough visas today for those who wish to come here: this backlog has led to 11 million people living in the shadows of American society, with families separated and workers left vulnerable without protections. Millions more are waiting to come to the United States, in pursuit of a job or simply a better life. We are not doing our part to treat the ger with the same respect “as the natives among us.”
This Passover, as we recall our escape from slavery, we must not forget our obligation to welcome the stranger. Rabbis Organizing Rabbis has compiled a short Haggadah supplement, and Jews United for Justice has put together a full Haggadah entitled, Immigrant Roots, Immigrant Rights. Whether you use these, other Passover resources, or none, I encourage you to take the time at your Seder to discuss or think about our obligation to welcome strangers in our own time, as we were strangers in Egypt, and to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform.