SHIELDING THE STRANGER
Ex. 22:20 is one of over thirty passages in the Torah which command us to look after the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt (this happens to be one of the places where the Torah spells out the reason behind its laws).
The word for a stranger is “ger”, which characteristically means a convert to Judaism. This is the view followed by Onkelos, who makes a distinction between “giora”, a convert, and “dayyar”, a dweller. What were we in Egypt? “Dayyarim”, people who lived there without accepting the local culture.
There is an ethical duty to shield the “dayyarim” in our midst, though they do not fully accept every aspect of Judaism, which would make them “gerim” in the sense of converts. Ibn Ezra adds that they have to have respect for our ethos and not worship heathen idols.
The question is why we should look after such people. Says Rashi, when you were strangers in Egypt you were weak and vulnerable, from which you should learn never to put other people in a weak or vulnerable position. Ramban adds a further idea, that when we were in Egypt no-one stuck up for us apart from God.
Similarly, if there are strangers in our midst at any point in history they can depend on support from God – and if God is kind to strangers, how can we Jews do anything other than emulate the Almighty?
In relation to converts, there still are Jews who have reservations about honouring and loving a ger. If only they realised how much moral (and sometimes physical) courage it takes to move from the dominant culture and find oneself a place in Judaism.
What a paradox it is that some of the critics are weak in their own Jewish commitment, whilst we see converts become true towers of strength to their new faith and people.
IF YOU LEND MONEY
“If you lend money to your fellow, do not act like a creditor; do not exact interest from him” (Ex. 22:25). Most people focus on the final part of the verse, deducing correctly that you should not exploit the misfortune of your fellow who cannot survive unless he takes a loan. When a person is in difficulty, you should not turn away from him.
We see this too in the first word of the sentence – the Hebrew “im” (if). Normally “if” denotes a choice – you can decide if you are going to take a certain action or if you aren’t. In our case you don’t really have an option. When someone needs help you have a duty to assist.
How then are we to understand the word “if”? Surely it implies an option!
The answer may be that though you know you are obliged to help another person, you must never regard it as a chore. It must be something you would voluntarily choose, even if it weren’t a duty.
It reminds me of what Albert Einstein is said to have remarked, “I am sorry I was born a Jew… because it deprived me of the ability to choose to be a Jew!”
A BLESSING ON YOUR BREAD, MAZEL TOV, MAZEL TOV!
The Yiddish saying is, “A blessing on your head, Mazel Tov, Mazel Tov!” You find this saying in “Fiddler on the Roof” as well as in Jewish folk tradition. But after reading this week’s portion, “bread” should be substituted for “head”.
There is a verse that says, “You shall serve the Lord your God, and He will bless your bread” (Ex. 23:25). Serving God is understood as prayer (“What is the service of the heart? Prayer!”). If you serve God He will reciprocate by blessing you and the bread you eat.
What happens if you are a poor person and can’t really afford bread? The verse doesn’t say which bread or how much bread: it simply says “your bread”. Whatever a person gets to eat it is a blessing from God.
THE TYRANNY OF THE MAJORITY
A basic democratic principle is that power rests with the voice of the people, i.e. the voice of the majority.
In Judaism this is generally taken as deriving from a verse in today’s sidra, “Acharai rabbim l’hattot” (Ex. 23:2), “incline after the majority”. But the actual words are “lo tih’yeh acharai rabbim l’hattot”, “Do not incline after the majority”, which is something quite different.
The commentators are well aware that majority rule can be a good principle, but following the majority can sometimes lead to harm. Hence they make a distinction. If the majority are leading you to do good, follow them, but if they are leading you to do evil, “do not incline” after them.
In the latter case, Ibn Ezra tells us, you should not say, “A multitude cannot lie”. The fact is that a multitude can lie, and if there is a strength in numbers, there is also a danger.
Bernard Berzon relates that a somewhat sinful individual was once explaining to the Chafetz Chayyim why he was not more righteous.
“I am like most other people,” he said, “The majority are like me. Why expect me to be different?”
The Chafetz Chayyim asked him,
“Friend, who do you think are in the majority, the saints or the sinners?”
The man replied,
“It seems to me that the really good people are very few”.
“And who are in the majority,”
the Chafetz Chayyim asked,
“Those who get sick or those who are always well?” “It seems to me,” was the answer, “that very few people are always well”.
“So,” said the Chafetz Chayyim, “you want to be part of a majority which is full of problems when you have the chance of enjoying the blessings of the privileged few?”
People often argue that they are only doing what everyone else is doing. Everyone else experiments with drugs, everyone else is a little less than honest, everyone else makes compromises with morality… why should I stand out and be different from everyone else? “Acharai rabbim l’hattot!” A multitude cannot lie!
On the world scene we see this argument unfolding day by day in the media and in the international organisations, especially when the many and the mighty gang up as usual against small Israel.
But the decisive answer was once given by an American ambassador to the United Nations after the welcome given to Yasser Arafat. The US ambassador stood up and warned against what he called “the tyranny of the majority”. The majority, he solemnly averred, represented a great threat to the survival of mankind.