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

Ha’azinu – what might we say and write when we confront our own mortality?

Moses knows he is going to die.  Not in the way we all ‘know’ we are going to die, the coldly logical knowledge that doesn’t impact on our emotions in any way, but in the way that some people who are very close to death know with a certainty that no longer expresses itself as fear or self-pity but with a clarity and sense of purpose.

I have sat at many deathbeds. I have seen denial and also acceptance, whimpering pain and alert peacefulness, sudden startling requests – for toast, for touch, for people long gone, for non-existent sounds or lights to be turned off or up.  What I have learned is that we none of us know how we shall die, how our last days and hours will be, but that at many, if not most of the deathbeds I have observed where there is some time for the process to be worked through, there is an opportunity to express what is most important to the dying person, to project themselves one last time into the world.

It is human to want to survive. Life wants to continue despite pain or confusion or fear. Even when a person seems prepared and ready for death there is often a moment where there is a struggle to continue in this world. Even Hezekiah who famously “turned his face to the wall” having been told that he must set his house in order for he would die and not live, then prays to remind God that he has done God’s will with his whole heart, and weeps sorely.   His prayer (found in Isaiah 38) resonates today “In the noontide of my days I shall go to the gates of the nether world, I am deprived of the residue of my years…. O God, by these things we live, and altogether therein is the life of my spirit; so recover Thou me, and make me to live.”

It doesn’t matter at what age we come to death – we want more life, we want to go on in some meaningful way, we want to be part of the future.

We all know we will die. We share death with all who have ever lived and all who will ever be. We may fear the how or the when, but generally we get on with life as if death is not real. And we don’t plan for how we might continue to be a part of the future, for how our life may make a difference for our having lived it, or for how or what might be remembered of our existence.

Yet sometimes we are forced to confront our own mortality. And when that happens, these questions demand to be asked.

The whole period of the Days of Awe which are now coming to a close forces us to acknowledge our own transience in this world.  Be it the wearing of the kittel we shall don for the grave, the taking out of a whole day from time to focus on how we are living our lives in order to reset and readjust our behaviours, or the saying of yizkor prayers and visiting the graves of our families. Be it the autumnal edge we feel as we shiver in the sukkah, or the browning and falling of the leaves, or the daylight hours shortening perceptibly – we are viscerally aware of the darkness that is coming, the lessening outer energy alongside the power of the interior life.

Sometimes this knowledge that we will inevitably cease to be in this world brings out a search for meaning, for a sense of self that will transcend the physicality of our existence. Sometimes we become engrossed in our own personal wants and needs, sometimes we look further outwards towards our family and our relationships, sometimes we gaze further out towards our community or we look further in time to see what will be after we have gone.  I think often of the story of Moses in the yeshiva of Akiva (BT Menachot 29b), comforted by seeing that Rabbi Akiva is citing him as the source of the teaching being given, even though he does not understand anything of the  setting that is 1500 years after his own life.  It is a story of not being forgotten, of projecting values down the generations. Talmud also tells us that R. Yochanan said that when a teaching is transmitted with the name of its author, then the lips of that sage “move in the grave” (BT Sanhedrin 90b.  Rabbinic Judaism gives great honour to the idea that we live on in the teachings we offered, but also in the memories of those who choose to remember us. It is commonplace in the Jewish world to be named for a dead relative in order to honour their memory, to tell stories about them long after the hearers (or even the tellers) have a first-hand memory of the person, to fast on the day of their yahrzeit (anniversary of their death) as well as to light a 24 hour candle and to say the kaddish prayer.

So it is time for us to give serious thought about how we project ourselves into the future, what we pass on in terms of life lessons, the stories people will tell about us, how they will remember us, how they will carry on the values that we have cared about enough for them to see and for them to choose too.

All rabbis have stories of sitting with the dying as these desires clarify. One colleague has I think the ultimate cautionary tale of being asked to come out to a deathbed of a woman he barely knew, a long way out from where he lived, in terrible weather, and sent in the form of a demand. Deciding that he must go but unsure of what was wanted, he collected together a number of different prayer books to be able to offer her the spiritual succour she wanted. Her final wish was that her daughter in law would not inherit her fur coat. She was taking her feud past the grave.  I remember the woman who sat in bed in her hospice writing letters to everyone in her life, beautiful letters – but she refused to actually see any of the people she was writing to. I remember the people who made great efforts to right wrongs and those who tried to comfort the people left behind. I think with love of the woman who sent an audio file with her message that she had had a wonderful life with the right man and they were not to grieve, even though her death seemed unfairly early. I think of the woman who, having lost her fiancé in the war, proudly told me she was going back to her maker virgo intacta, and the woman who told me of her abortion while she was hiding in Nazi Germany, and her belief that the child had visited her alongside its father who died some years later.

Many a personal secret has been recounted at a deathbed, but often having been released from the power of that secret if there is time, the soul continues its journey in this world, and suddenly all sorts of things come into perspective. And it is these stories that I remember with such love and that have had such great impact on me.  The stories that people had hidden from their nearest and dearest but which explain so much of who they are and why they have done what they did. Their belief that they were not loved enough which led to them thinking they were not able to love as much as they wanted. Their umbilical connection to Judaism that they had not lived out publicly for fear of what might happen to them or their children should anti-Semitism return as virulently as they remembered in their youth.  Their subsequent horror that children and grandchildren were not connected to their Jewish roots, and their guilt at having weakened this chain. There are multiple examples but what I see again and again is the need for good relationships with others, for human connection with others , for expressing warmth and love and vulnerability, the need for living according to clear and thoughtful moral values, and for a sense of deep identity that passes from generation to generation and connects us to the other in time.

Moses in sidra Haazinu is just like any other human being, wanting his life not to be wasted but to be remembered, wanting his stories and his values to be evoked in order to pass on what is important to the generations that will come after him, however they may use them.  He needs to be present in their lives, albeit not in a physical way.  The whole of the book of Deuteronomy has been his way of reminding, of chivvying, of recalling and reimagining the history he has shared with the people of Israel. He uses both carrot and stick, he uses prose and poetry, he is both resigned and deeply angry, he is human.

There is a biblical tradition of the deathbed blessing, a blessing which describes not only what is but also what is aspirational.  Rooted in that has come the idea of the ethical will to pass on ideas, stories and thoughts to the next generation of one’s family, a tradition that has found a home also in reminiscence literature.  Sometimes we find out much more about the person who has died from their letters and diaries than they ever expressed  in life – and often we mourn that it is now too late to ask the questions that emerge from these, or to apologise or explain ourselves.

As the days grow shorter and we have spent time mulling over how we are living our lives and trying to match them to how we want our lives to have looked once we see them from the far end, we could take a leaf out of Moses’ life’s work in Deuteronomy and write our own life story, not just the facts but the stories around them, how we understood them, what we learned.  Next year we might write it differently, but what a rich choice lies in front of us, to explore what is really important to us and to ensure that it, like us, will live on.

Ki Tavo: Moses’ words echo today – what of us will echo in the future?

Ki Tavo includes the famously difficult passage known as the tochecha, the red lines of society’s expectations laid down mainly in the form of the cursing of the one who disobeys, but there is a great deal more in this speech which is part of the series given by an increasingly anxious Moses as he approaches his death. The whole thrust of the book of Deuteronomy is given life by Moses’ desperate wish to help the Israelite people continue on their journey with God after he is no longer around to help them. So here we have the ritual of sacrificing the first harvested fruits of the land to God carefully spelled out – the fruits should be put in a basket, taken to a specific place of worship, given to the priest of the time – and one of the earliest bits of liturgical speech is also given here – the people must say to the priest “I profess this day to the Eternal­­­­­­­­­ your God that I am come unto the land which the Eternal swore to our ancestors to give us”. The priest will take the basket and place it at the altar, and then the speech is to continue: “A wondering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great mighty and populous. And the Egyptians dealt badly with us and afflicted us and laid upon us hard bondages. And we cried to the Eternal the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression. And the Eternal God brought us out from Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness and with signs and with wonders, and God brought us into this place and has given us the land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And I have brought the first of the fruit of the land which you O God have given me”.

The whole script is prescribed – and after it what shall happen – you will then worship God, you will rejoice in all the good that God has given to you, and so on.

The text is familiar to even the most distanced of Jews – it is the basis for the text of the Haggadah that we read at Pesach. Word for word Moses’ script is recited when we remember the Exodus from Egypt at the Seder each year. The actual figure of Moses may never have been allowed into the Haggadah in case people should begin to believe that it was his leadership rather than God’s that took us on our journey into peoplehood and covenant, but that becomes irrelevant when we realise that something far more important has been imported untouched by the editorial process of the book – the direct prayer of Moses is embedded in the text as if in amber. The rabbinic statement that a scholar does not ever die fully if his teachings are remembered – phrased evocatively as “his lips move in the grave when his words are recounted” – means that Moses’ teaching really has been passed down the generations and his humanity and presence really do remain among us.

As we move towards the Yamim Noraim we are prompted to remember those who taught us our religious and ethical values, and it is a custom in this period to visit the graves of those family members and teachers who have died. We are going to be facing our own ‘day of judgement’ to spend at least one day looking at our lives from the perspective of our own death as we abstain from food and drink and the normal everyday activities we do every other day of the year. We weigh up our actions in the past year and maybe further; consider who we have been, what lessons can be inferred from how we have lived our lives. So the question we have to ask of ourselves now is – how have we done? How are our actions an expression of our values? Will we have been a strong link in a chain or an irrelevant and vestigial structure appended to the community without much adding to it?

Every year our liturgical calendar gives us time to consider whether our lives are going in a direction we can be proud of, whether our lived lives are an valuable addition to the world we care about or not. So will the text of our lives be read in the generations to come or as we pass into eternity will we also be forgotten, no stories remembered with warmth and love, no wisdom or behaviour of ours held close to those still in the world? Our legacy does not have to be high profile or high achieving. But how we lived our lives should matter.

vati grave

illustration is the grave of Walter Rothschild in Jewish Cemetery Lausanne