What does it mean to be a stranger? Is it someone who does not belong? Or is it someone who is not familiar? Is it someone who believes differently? Who looks differently? Someone outside your family or circle of friends?
In this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, twice we are admonished on how a stranger should be treated:
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Ex. 22:20).”
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (23:9).”
The rabbis are fascinated by the repetition of what seems like the exact same commandment. There is a dictum in rabbinic exegesis that there are no superfluous words in the Torah, therefore, any words or phrases that are repeated must have a meaning aside from simply a repetition of an idea.
Some agree that the repetition of the phrase is referring to two different kinds of strangers, a physical stranger and a spiritual stranger.
There is another thread that some follow which states that the repetition is referring to different behaviours that we should refrain from, specifically taunting with words and with actions.
What both these verses have in common however, is the reason for the commandment. At that time, we knew what it was to be strangers and for the first time, we were moving to a position of being in the majority. Yet we were commanded not to simply accept the morals of the time, but to strive to be better, to learn from our experiences so that no one else would be subjected to what we had gone through. We were not to model ourselves on the societies that existed, but to create a new moral compact with a higher standard.
Today, as we have existed for most of the past two thousand years, we are in the minority and we have a collective memory of how we have been treated as a minority. We know how those just like us in the greater society should be treated, whether they are immigrants, refugees, or even converts into our own community. We are charged not only to welcome them, but to fight for them, in whatever way they might be oppressed, verbal, physical, or otherwise.
From our experience comes a wisdom that we hope to not only impart, but make a part of the collective consciousness of all the world.