“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
The most oft-repeated commandment in Torah – it appears 36 times – is the injunction against mistreating the stranger. (It actually appears twice in this week’s portion, Parashat Mishpatim). The “soul of the stranger,” of course, it a central theme in the Torah. Many of the narratives of Genesis emphasize the experience of the patriarchs and matriarchs as sojourners in the land. (When Abraham seeks a burial place for his wife, Sarah, for instance, he describes himself to the Hittites by saying, “I am a stranger among you…”) (23:4). There is also an important foreshadowing of the Israelites future experience as an oppressed alien minority (“Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs…”) (15:13)
The commandment to protect the stranger in their midst, then, seems to be woven into the very fabric of Torah itself. The Israelites are somehow born into the world as strangers and are thus commanded – more often than anything else – to protect the stranger.
While this commandment appears in our portion amidst a litany of civil, criminal and social laws, it is underscored by an important theological claim: “You know the soul of the stranger.” In other words, the injunction to protect the stranger comes from a shared sense of “other-ness” – particularly with those who might appear at first to be “strange” to us. This spiritual insight was explored powerfully by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, in his book “The Dignity of Difference:”
We encounter God in the face of the stranger. That is, I believe, the Hebrew Bible’s single greatest and most counterintuitive contribution to ethics…The human other is a trace of the Divine Other. As an ancient Jewish teaching puts it, ‘When a human being makes many coins in the same mint, they all come out the same. God makes every person in the same image – God’s image, and yet each one is different.’ The supreme religious challenge is to see God’s image in one who is not in our image. (pp. 59-60)
Yes, it certainly does feel counterintuitive. How can we possibly see God’s image in someone who we don’t know personally? How can we see God’s image in someone whose values are fundamentally different from our ours? How do we find God’s image in someone who might seek to do us harm? The answer, of course, is that we are all strangers one way or another. But it is only when we look truly and honestly into the face of the one who is different from us that we understand the truth of our common humanity.
It is truly paradigmatic of our times that such a suggestion might seem impossibly naive. Sacks’ book was published in the immediate wake of 9/11 – now five years hence, it might well be claimed that our world has been utterly gripped by collective stranger anxiety. But in truth, these words are even more critical for us now than ever before. To see the face of God in the stranger is indeed the supreme religious challenge of our age.