Ekev: Loving the Stranger

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Ekev

This week we’re reading the Torah portion Ekev, which is a long
peroration from Moshe on how the Israelites must be loyal to Torah and
covenant when they arrive in the Land of Israel.

Among the praises of God that Moshe recounts is God’s special concern
for those in society who don’t fit easily into a patriarchal,
clan-based society:

“[God] upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and
befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. — You
too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of
Egypt.” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy 10:18-19)

The JPS translation above is “you too must befriend the stranger,” but
a more literal translation is: you must love the stranger, or “ger,”
which in its Biblical context means someone living among you who is
not an Israelite citizen. The ancient sages understood “ger” as a
convert to Judaism, and thus Sefer HaHinnuch (the medieval textbook of
commandments) understands this as a separate mitzvah to love and treat
kindly and fully accept any converts in our communities. (This alone
proves that Judaism is not an ethnicity, nor a race, but a people,
which one can join.)

Sefer HaHinnuch points out that we already have a commandment to “love
your neighbor as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18), which would include the
convert, but posits that we have an extra obligation to love those who
voluntarily join our communities, because they have chosen a path
which may cause them to be separated, in some way, from their families
and communities of origin.

Not only that, but in a very interesting way, Sefer HaHinnuch takes
the original meaning of the verse- love the stranger or non-citizen in
your midst- and adduces it as an additional meaning of this
commandment on top of the normative interpretation, that of loving,
accepting, and being kind to converts. The language is quite beautiful
(taken from the Feldheim translation but made a bit more gender neutral):

“It is for us to learn from this precious mitzvah to take pity on any
person who is in a town or city that is not their native ground and
the place of their ancestors. Let us maltreat him any any way, finding
him alone, with those who would aid him quite far from him- just as we
see that the Torah commands us to have compassion on anyone who needs
help.”

Returning to the verse above, we see an exhortation to remember that
we were once in the land of Egypt- that is, far from home, alone,
anxious- and this memory is the source of our compassion. The mitzvah
of loving the “ger” is a mitzvah of becoming more conscious of the
circumstances of people who may not feel fully part of our
communities. It is a commandment to remember any time that any one of
us has ever felt left out, or like we didn’t fit it (I can remember
this from junior high school, for sure, and it was painful ) and using
those memories to connect with those for whom is it is a present
reality right in front of us. In this way, loving the stranger means
recognizing that they are not so strange or alien after all.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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