Mishpatim: speaking to us today to remind us to take care of the strangers who live amongst us

Introduced in this sidra, and threaded through the rest of the biblical text is a commandment so contemporary and relevant it is as if we can still hear the air vibrate with the divine voice. Here in parashat Mishpatim we are reminded not once, but twice, not to oppress or wrong the stranger:

וְגֵ֥ר לֹֽא־תוֹנֶ֖ה וְלֹ֣א תִלְחָצֶ֑נּוּ כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם: כא כָּל־אַלְמָנָ֥ה וְיָת֖וֹם לֹ֥א תְעַנּֽוּן: כב אִם־עַנֵּ֥ה תְעַנֶּ֖ה אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י אִם־צָעֹ֤ק יִצְעַק֙ אֵלַ֔י שָׁמֹ֥עַ אֶשְׁמַ֖ע צַֽעֲקָתֽוֹ:

And a stranger you will not wrong, neither shall you oppress them; for you  were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry” (Exodus 22:20-22)

 וְגֵ֖ר לֹ֣א תִלְחָ֑ץ וְאַתֶּ֗ם יְדַעְתֶּם֙ אֶת־נֶ֣פֶשׁ הַגֵּ֔ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

“And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (23:9)

This commandment is the subject of much commentary – not least the number of times it appears in the biblical text.

In the Babylonian Talmud we are told:

“It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: Why did the Torah warn against [wrongdoing] the proselyte in thirty-six, or as others say, in forty-six, places?  Because he has a strong inclination to evil. What is the meaning of the verse, You shall neither wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt?

It has been taught: Rabbi Nathan said: Do not taunt your neighbour with the blemish you yourself have (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b)

Thirty six or forty six repetitions of the warning against wronging a stranger – it is an extraordinary marker of something the biblical tradition holds dear – and a reminder of course that wronging strangers must be something easy to do in any society or the bible and later traditions would not feel the need to hammer home the point.

The reasons given in bible are generally either that having been oppressed ourselves we should take care not to put others into that position because we know the pain of it (remember that you were slaves in Egypt), or that God cares in particular for the vulnerable – and the stranger is repeatedly part of a list that includes the widowed and the orphaned, those with no family or economic security to support them. And both of these are powerful aspirations – that we, who know the pain of being an outsider should not make others outsiders, and that our society must be structured to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected and supported, that we should not expect God to do what is our obligation. We see ourselves as doing God’s work when we treat other human beings with dignity and respect, seeing God in them as our shared Creator, and it is telling that there is no blessing formula for our doing this kind of holy work – no beracha thanking God for the commandment, it is meant to be so ingrained in us that it has shaped our very identity.

Post biblical commentators explain this imperative to not wrong a stranger, to care for the vulnerable who are living amongst us, in a number of ways commensurate with their own context. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus, living in oppressive times under Roman rule while the second temple was destroyed and society was fractured and fractious, was concerned that should we treat the strangers amongst us badly they would turn on us and damage us – hence the “strong inclination to evil”.  For Rabbi Nathan of Babylon, who live a generation or so later, the issue was more that the Jewish people were likely to see in strangers things they recognised – and disliked – in themselves and would therefore externalise and reject their own attributes.

Rashi in eleventh century France, seeing the early crusaders sweep through in order the cleanse their society of others, suggests to us that the verse “for you were strangers” is there to remind us that if we hurt the strangers living amongst us they may also denounce and hurt us by reminding ourselves and others that we too are descended from strangers – a “blemish” we share with more modern immigrants by being foreign in the land we are living in.

And the Ramban (Nachmanides) who lived in 13th century Spain, a gentle character most of whose life was untroubled by political upheaval – at least until the disputation of Barcelona when he was already in his seventies – focuses differently on this commandment, saying “Do not oppress the stranger because you think he has no one to defend him; remember how Pharaoh learned that God defends the stranger. God is the shield of the oppressed, the one who sees the tears of those who have no one else to give them comfort. God will save every person from the hands of those stronger than he. God will always hear the cries of the widow and the orphan, the pleas of those who have no one upon whom to rely except their Father in Heaven”

Each of us reads bible in the context of our own experiences, but each of us must take note that there is a particular obligation on us to care for the vulnerable amongst us, be they our own people who have fallen on hard times and who need our support (the widowed and the orphaned) or be they strangers who have come to live alongside us in the land: (The ger). We may tell ourselves different narratives about this obligation, but we must honour it in action. We might remember that Abraham was an Ivri – from across the river – who introduced himself to the people of Het as a resident alien among them, we might see the pain of Moses who called one of his sons Gershon (ger-sham) because he was a stranger among the people he was living with and found it most painful when he had a child away from his own people. We might recognise that we are like the stranger, even if we are settled and they are not. We might recognise the spark of the divine in every human being. We might respond to the ethics of caring for the vulnerable, the orphan, widow and foreigner, or feel the gaze of God on us asking us to do what we know to be the right thing

We might notice that each of these are somehow cut off from their roots, less supported by family than the rest of us, with less available family around them for whatever reason. Indeed Ibn Ezra, himself forced to leave Spain and wander for much of his later life when the incoming Almohad regime began to persecute the Jews, commented on our verse that “The reason for the prohibition ‘You shall not wrong a stranger’ (Exodus 22:20)…is that he has no family roots”

All of which is to say that the normal human desire to create a group of like-people around oneself, to isolate oneself from strangers and  to ignore them, to build a society which excludes them, is known to bible and is firmly disapproved of. Time and again we are warned, reminded, instructed – care for the vulnerable, in particular those who need help, in particular those without a structure to support them, in particular the widow, orphan and foreigner who are trying to survive right by you.

So it is possibly not surprising when one reads that most of Europe is doing all it can to keep the great wave of migration away, to turn its back on the frightened, the poor, the victims of warring groups, the homeless, the desperate. Not surprising, but not acceptable either. And when Israel, a land created by Jews whose historical narrative has been the despised outsider since the fall of the second temple – when Israel behaves without the Derech Eretz, without the ethical and judicial imperatives to look after strangers, it is time for Jews all over the world to step up and remind our people of the most common commandment in Bible, and the obligation to obey it.

Israel was one of the first signatories of the UN convention on Refugees in 1951 and committed herself to making the asylum process and painfree and humane as possible.

Today there are about thirty eight thousand Africans seeking refuge in Israel, who have come mainly from the war torn areas of Sudan and Eritrea. They live mainly in South Tel Aviv. About five thousand children are in this group, and about seven thousand women. The conditions are not good, they are crowded and the local population is also economically and socially vulnerable. The situation has been allowed to spiral so that competition between the different populations means that there is less work, higher rents, little sense of community and enormous pressure on all the people.

Because of a Supreme Court judgment that Israel, which recognises it cannot send the people back to certain danger, can instead send them to a ‘neutral’ third country (understood to be Rwanda or possibly Uganda), the pressure to deport the refugees with their ‘consent’ is growing with a financial incentive to get them to leave or the threat of jail if they refuse.

Asylum applications are complicated and often the paperwork gets lost in the system, so of the approximately fourteen thousand applications filed, only eleven Sudanese and Eritrean refugees have been accepted, with about six thousand refused and the rest lost in the system.

Israel takes pride in being a Jewish state, which means it should be based on Jewish values. The present government is simply ignoring these values. But  the Jewish people are not ignoring these values and many groups are doing their best to change the policy of Government to better align with the most frequent exhortation in bible – love your neighbour as yourself, care for the vulnerable, treat the stranger with the same law as the home born – however you frame it, wherever you delve into the biblical text,  this is our core religious activity.

Jews outside of Israel are protesting to the Government in many ways. Haaretz just reported https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/protests-against-israel-s-deportation-plan-gather-worldwide-1.5804320   After thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the Rwandan embassy in Herzliya to protest the deportation of asylum seekers from Israel to the African country, thousands more joined them in protest outside Rwandan missions around the world in over a dozen cities….Michael Sfard, a Tel Aviv–based human rights lawyer who represents victims of civil rights violations, told the crowd he is ashamed that his own government “does not live up to the lessons that should have been learned from our own history, from our own collective biography.”

Rabbis for Human Rights are educating and among the activists – see http://rhr.org.il/eng/2018/02/parashat-mishpatim-gerim-midst/

Rabbi Susan Silverman is leading a call to hide asylum seekers facing forced deportation, http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/rabbis-pledge-to-protect-african-asylum-seekers-facing-deportation-from-israel_us_5a60f743e4b05085db6096a3

Other Jewish and Israeli human rights organisations are focussing on helping – such as

The Hotline for Migrants and Refugees http://hotline.org.il/en/main/   protects the rights of refugees, migrant workers and victims of human trafficking

CIMI  https://www.cimi.org.il/      the Centre for International Migration and Integration, has been leading a campaign to adopt and advocate young people who first arrived in Israel as unaccompanied minors, among other work to help integrate migrants.

The Anne Frank Home Sanctuary Movement (Miklat Israel),  is an initiative to hide asylum seekers slated for deportation in private homes. Rabbis and holocaust survivors are among the people providing such sanctuary

עוצרים את הגירוש a grassroots effort to stop the impending deportations through disseminating information, protests, and social media campaigns.

http://www.asylumseekers.org/  Right Now! Advocates for  for Asylum Seekers in Israel and is running an advocacy campaign abroad.

“You shall not turn over a slave who seeks refuge with you. He shall live with you in any place he may choose, within one of your gates. You must not mistreat him” – Deuteronomy 23:16-17.

Let me finish with a text from Sefer haChinuch, an anthology of the mitzvot from 13th century Spain:

“It is for us to learn from this precious commandment to take pity on any man who is in a town or city that is not his native ground and site of the family of his fathers.  Let us not maltreat him in any way, finding him alone, with those who would aid him quite far from him – just as we see that the Torah adjures us to have compassion on anyone who needs help.  With these qualities we will merit to be treated with compassion by the Eternal God Be He blessed”

 

 

photo taken from internet Jewish Chronicle page reporting the story Students and teachers protest against the deportation of African asylum seekers, Tel Aviv, January 24, 2018 Photo: Flash 90

mattot massei – a modern take on the cities of refuge

first written 2009.

ImageStaring out of the window in the media-briefing centre in Sderot, looking at a huge and ugly concrete wall right outside, I read the word ‘miklat’ and for a moment I was surprised. I know the word from bible rather than ulpan, where the arei miklat, the cities of refuge, are created. As our bus had entered the town, we were given a briefing – in the event of a rocket coming over from Gaza, if you are still on the bus, get down into the passageway and hope. If not, then run like crazy for one of the bomb shelters that are dotted every few yards – the miklat.

Miklat is a word that is repeated ten times in the 34 verses we read today. A miklat is a place of safety, a place of escape, a sheltering place.  Reading today’s portion my mind immediately went back to the experience in Israel – where one didn’t feel very safe nor sheltered. Seeing the word then on the shelters all over the Sderot area, and seeing the words now in this sidra, the two experiences come together. The words for refuge, the designation of the cities of refuge “arei miklat”, of “miklato” (the refuge of the innocent manslayer) — are tied up in Modern Israeli experience as bomb shelter or air raid shelter, the hoped for asylums from the constant and unpredictable attacks on the people there.

In fact the tradition of signing the areas of refuge, something I found so remarkable and so distressing in the unexceptional and stolid nature of those constructions everywhere in Sderot, has long and honourable roots.  The Talmud records that: “Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya’acov said: The words miklat, miklat [refuge, refuge] were inscribed at crossroads, so that the [inadvertent] manslayer might see them and turn in the right direction.” (BT Makkot 10b)

The Cities of Refuge were towns in the Kingdom of Israel and Kingdom of Judah at which the perpetrators of manslaughter – done without malice or forethought – could claim the right of asylum; These manslayers were not enemies of those they had killed, nor had they intended to hurt them, but they had killed them by accident, and outside of these cities, blood vengeance against such perpetrators was allowed by law. The Torah names just six cities as being a city of refuge: Golan, Ramot-Gilad, and Bosor, on the east of the Jordan River, and Kedesh (on the Lebanese border), Shechem, and Hebron on the western side.

Just listing the names of the arei-miklat is a poignant experience. Almost all of these places are in disputed political geography today, and far from being places of calm or sanctuary.  While on sabbatical I spent some time in Israel – in particular a day in the south Hebron hills and in the city of Hebron itself. The tension and aggression in the area was palpable, and rather than have ‘miklat miklat’ signposted at crossroads, there were checkpoints and watchtowers, and in the city closed streets and terrible graffiti. It was the very opposite of a place of refuge.

What was the purpose of providing the Arei Miklat, the cities of refuge?

The author of Sefer Ha-Chinuch suggests three reasons for a manslayer to flee to a city of refuge (positive commandment 410):

The first is “So that he regret his deed, suffering the pain of exile, which is almost like the pain of death, for a person becomes separated from his loved ones and the land of his birth, and must live out his days among strangers.”

Secondly “there is an element of improving the world … for it saves him from the blood avenger killing him when he did not willfully do wrong, for his act was unwitting.”

And finally  “There is yet another benefit:  so that the relatives of the person who was killed not have to constantly see the killer in the place where the unfortunate act was committed, for all the ways of the Torah are for peace and tranquility.”

Pain and suffering reflect the emotional state of the manslayer, protecting him from the blood avenger shows concern for his safety and physical preservation, and distancing him from the relatives of the person killed brings about an improvement in society, keeping the family of the person killed from having to see the person who shed his blood, at least for a certain period of time.

Rabbi Judah Zoldan asks “Aside from these explanations, there are several other issues that should be considered: what other understanding and view of the value of life will the manslayer have when he leaves the city of refuge, upon the death of the high priest?  What does the manslayer do with his life for the period that he resides in the city of refuge?  Does he learn and internalize a different view of the value of life and of a person’s responsibilities for his actions?  What rehabilitative process does the manslayer experience there, and under whose guidance?

        From the time I spent in Sderot and in Hebron, these questions have been haunting me. I saw both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians living, not in cities of refuge, but in cities of pain, trapped geographically and spiritually in what can only be described as a living hell.  There are, it seems, few innocent manslayers here, but mostly people who are to some extent complicit in the events. Be they suicide bombers prepared to blow themselves up alongside people from the ‘other’ population, or settlers appropriating land for their ideology of triumphant nationalism; be they eighteen year old kids in the IDF not questioning their orders, or the rabbis who write up the terms of engagement against the other, everyone it seems is adding to the heat of events.  There is little reflection, slight repentance, no improving of the world. Rehabilitation and the development of a different view of the value of life is noted mainly for its absence.  And yet –

While I was in the Hebron hills I met a man called Ezra Nawi. He is a Jewish Israeli man, an Iraqi born in Basra, whose trade in life is plumber. He is also a human rights activist, and with persistent non-violent activity he helps the local population to stay on their lands. The day I met him, he was constructing some kind of solar powered electrical generator with what appeared to be some string, some metal, and other Heath Robinson materials, for a family of Arabs whose settlement was being continually disrupted, even though they had papers dating back to the Ottoman times to prove the land was theirs.  There is a video on You Tube of him protesting the treatment meted out to his friends, and what is the most sad for me is him calling out to the border police “I was also a soldier but I did not demolish houses….The only thing that will be left here is hatred, only hatred will be left here”, as an Arab woman screams out “May God never forgive you. May God destroy you”

        The original cities of refuge were designed to keep society safe, to palliate the effect of the blood relative having the power – and obligation – to avenge the death of an individual.  The manslayer who had not killed intentionally, who did not have an animus towards the one who died, was able to find a place of peace within the Levitical cities, and to stay there in safety reflecting upon the results of their actions.  It was designed to bring about peace, rather than allow a feud to build up between families. It was designed to remove the hatred from the situation, taking the hated one away from those who could not bear to see him, taking the thoughtless one to a place of thoughtfulness.

        There are many many peace activists in Israel, Jewish and Arab people who take refuge not in places but in their own integrity, who try to bring about a better world by seeing this one as it really is and imposing the values of the truly religious individual upon it – noticing and valuing the other, noticing when our side gets it wrong, witnessing the conflict peacefully. Alongside Ezra Nawi there is Rabbis for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights, Breaking the Silence – an organization of young Israeli soldiers who are confronting Israeli society with what is being done in their name; Ta’ayush, (2004)  (Arabic for “life in common”), a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation by constructing a true Arab-Jewish partnership. They say of themselves “A future of equality, justice and peace begins today, between us, through concrete, daily actions of solidarity to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and to achieve full civil equality for all Israeli citizens.”  There is MachsomWatch, in existence since 2001,  an organisation of peace activist Israeli women against the Israeli Occupation of the territories and the systematic repression of the Palestinian nation. They call for Palestinian freedom of movement within their own territory and for an end to the Occupation that destroys Palestinian society and inflicts grievous harm on Israeli society. 

The cities of refuge may be gone, transformed into cities of dispute. Nowadays the only places of miklat are bomb shelters reminding everyone of how much the hatred has grown, how rampant and chaotic the response to it. But there are at least anshei miklat – people who provide a kind of refuge when all around are causing pain and sorrow. Through them I hope that the lands of Israel and of Palestine will soon find true refuge from the terror that stalks them day and night, and that the refuge all of us seek will be found as a result of their actions.  They need our support and our active help. Please do find out more about them and offer them some miklat that we can provide – to know that they are not forgotten and not uncared for. To know that the image of God is not hiding in this world, but is out and about in the work of all of us who choose to do it.