We Left Egypt, but Still Know the Stranger

If Judaism were strictly a religion, you might think that the most repeated phrase in the Torah would be about worshipping the one God. Or, if we were just a tribe or a nation, the recurring principle would be about how we were promised the entire land of Israel by divine right. Or, if we were strictly a culture, the Torah would remind us over and over again to observe the holiday traditions.

We are all those things at once, and the sum of those parts is that we have a clear sense of peoplehood. As such, the most repeated principle in the Torah is the admonition to not forget from where we came. Again and again – 35 times, in fact – the Torah tells us to treat the ger (stranger, foreigner, immigrant) as we would treat ourselves, for we, too, were once strangers in Egypt. “The stranger that sojourns with you shall be unto you as the natives among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” is written in the Book of Leviticus as a foundational ethic on which Jewish law, tradition, and culture is built.

There is an even earlier story that exemplifies this notion. Abraham, the first patriarch, left his home in Babylon to settle in the Promised Land of Canaan (modern-day Israel) on the promise that God would bestow that land to him and his descendants. When his wife, Sarah, died at the age of 127, Abraham needed to purchase a cave to bury her. But, when the local people tried to give him the land for free, he instead insisted on paying full price for it because, “I am a stranger and sojourner among you.” In other words, even after decades of living in the Promised Land, Abraham still felt like a ger, a resident alien. And, yet, the cave he purchased – Machpelah, which still exists today in the city of Hebron – marked the first Jewish roots in the Promised Land, the first piece of land we owned. It is both a symbol of our permanence as well as a reminder of our continued sense of stranger-ness. To both belong to a place – whether Israel, America, Europe, or elsewhere – and to feel apart seems like the quintessential Jewish experience.

At Birthright trip orientations, I remind our participants about the observation of Moses: “I am a stranger in a strange land.” I tell them that they, too, might feel like strangers in a strange land when they visit Israel for the first time, as they might not recognize the sites, smells, food, culture, language, and people. But, I tell them, the Israeli people don’t look at you like strangers. You are not a ger, you are mishpocha – family – and they are apt to stop you on the street to welcome you “home.”

There is an insistence on belonging that comes from this notion that we of all people know what it is like to be the stranger. And so, the Jewish tradition reminds us 35 times over that we are morally bound to look after the foreigner, the immigrant, the resident alien. It matters not which country they come from: all of us came from Egypt, and so all of us can live together.

Jason Harris is the Birthright Experience program manager at the Federation. Learn More

Categories: Israel, Young Adults


February 03, 2017