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Two Minutes of Torah

>Two Minutes of Torah: Mishpatim (Exodus 22:20-23:13) – ‘You were strangers…’

>During last year’s General Election, many of us watched as the leaders of the three main political parties participated in three live television debates for the first time. I found it to be compulsive viewing, as we watched the three men vying for the keys to Number 10 Downing Street, debating and disagreeing on the key political questions. The divisions between the parties were clear on almost every issue, except for one. It seemed that on the subject of immigration there was a general agreement that there were too many immigrants coming into Britain, and the only disagreement appeared over whose policy would most effectively stem the flow. I was disheartened by the tone of the debate as this important issue was discussed.

Whenever immigration is discussed I cannot help but remember the fact that the British Jewish community was only readmitted just over 350 years ago. Most of us are the descendants of immigrants who arrived here from Eastern Europe sometime towards the end of the nineteenth century. We were the immigrants people were complaining about just over four generations ago.

The tendency to pursue a policy which oppresses the immigrant, or the stranger, may be one of the reasons why throughout the Torah we are reminded that we were strangers in Egypt, so that it will influence our behaviour. In this week’s Torah portion we read: ‘You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Ex. 22:20), and then twenty verses later we are told: ‘Also you shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Ex. 23:9). None of the other commandments are restated in such a clear way, so close together.

In Torah there is a belief that not a single word is superfluous, and so it is striking to us that in such close proximity this commandment is repeated, with virtually the same words and language.

The repetition of the commandment suggests two things to us. First of all it makes it clear that this is an important instruction, one that requires reiteration to make sure that it is not ignored. God was unwilling to take the chance that this commandment would be lost in a Torah portion, which contains fifty-three separate commandments. But on a secondary level, the need to repeat this commandment might reveal something about the way we are often inclined to treat the stranger. Maybe our ‘natural’ reaction is to oppress the stranger or to wrong him, and so we need to be told twice that this is inappropriate and against God’s will.

The way in which immigration was treated in the British General Election is not unique, similar debates have raged across the world, most notably this past year in both America and France. It seems that there is a strand of anti-immigrant feeling, which permeates through many societies. It was probably also present in the Israelite community, which is why the commandment had to be restated.

We are commanded not to oppress the stranger and not to wrong him, not just because it is the right way to behave, but because we ‘were strangers in the land of Egypt’. One of the formative experiences of the Israelite community is the experience of having been strangers in a strange land. And it is not just our ancestors who were strangers. Every year at the Seder we imagine that we too were in Egypt, we too were slaves – we were the strangers.

In our recent history and in our ancient history we have experienced the life of an immigrant. We have moved from land to land seeking a place where we could settle and call home. We must never forget the formative experience of our direct, and more distant, ancestors. We ‘know the heart of the stranger’, we remember what it was like to be an immigrant, and we must act in a way which honours these memories and experiences.

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