Who is a Stranger? — Michael Dickel

According to Jewish tradition, there are 613 Commandments (Mitzvot) in the Torah (The Hebrew Scriptures / Five Books of Moses). I’ve been taught that the Rabbinic tradition holds that repetition in the Torah indicates importance, especially for Mitzvot. The famous Ten Utterances (Ten Commandments in the Christian tradition) occur twice, in slightly different form. Another Mitvah (Commandment) however, occurs as many as 36 times: to not mistreat and even to love the Stranger (Ger, in Hebrew).

Rabbi Eliezer explains that the Torah “warns against the wronging of a ger in thirty-six places; others say, in forty-six places” (Bava Metzia 59b cited by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks).

Why do I mix “not mistreat” with “love”? This this passage in Leviticus, among others in the Torah: 

“When a stranger lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The stranger living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were strangers in Egypt. I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:33–34).

Today, there are two types of ger—the ger toshav (foreign resident) and the ger tzedek (righteous convert). Some today interpret the mitzvah of loving the Stranger as a reference to converts because of this. This justifies discrimination and oppression of the Other, for example, refugees. However, this interpretation is illogical. For the passages say, “you were strangers in Egypt.” And this phrase usually appears with the admonition to love a stranger.

Jews were outsiders in Egypt and eventually enslaved as a perceived threat. They were not converts. Rabbi and Professor David Golinkin tells us: “The Bible is not familiar with a ger tzedek or righteous convert. In the Bible, a ger is a stranger or resident alien of non-Israelite origin living in Israel” (Erev Pesach: ”The Stranger Within Your Gates”). He later quotes another occurrence of this mitzvah from Exodus:

“‘You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Exodus 22:20) The rabbis interpreted this to mean that you may not oppress a ger toshav either verbally or monetarily (Maimonides, Hilkhot Mekhirah 14:15-16; Shulhan Arukh Hoshen Mishpat 228:2)” (Erev Pesach: ”The Stranger Within Your Gates”).

So, who is the Stranger?

An earlier passage a few verses up in Leviticus from what I quoted earlier gives a clue: “You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:18). When compared to Leviticus 19:33 which says about the stranger to “Love him as yourself,” Rabbi Sacks does, the echo suggests to me that the Stranger is also our neighbor. Does this mean those who live in proximity, that is, our neighhborhood?

Some indeed argue resident alien, someone who is legally living with you. I have hear oral arguments that this is “the stranger within your gates” (Exodus 20:10). However, the passage from Exodus where I find this (also translate in the JPS Torah edition: “the stranger within your settlements”) refers not to loving the Stranger and does not mention “for you were strangers in Egypt.” It is the mitzvah not to work on the Sabbath, and includes those who live with you (also son, daughter, your slaves, your cattle…with the stranger listed last among those specified in addition to “you” who shall not labor).

The phrase that frequently accompanies the mitzvah of treating well and loving the stranger, “for you were strangers in Egypt,” provides a wider scope than the neighborhood—at least the dynasty of Egypt in size. And I would suggest that if we think of the whole earth as our current residence, and countries as neighborhoods, we could got further. Any stranger on earth—now less foreign from from another nation, but more stranger from another neighborhood, someone we don’t know well or at all. The “them” of “us and them.”

And this Other, all others, while we may still perceive an “us” and a “them,” the mitzvah here is to not mistreat, better, to treat well, and more than that, to love. How to love the stranger? As ourselves.


How do we approach this revolutionary loving of the erstwhile threatening “them”? Perhaps we begin by finding common ground. The most grounding common principle for such a radical notion? That “they” are human beings desiring and deserving social connections of being treated well and loved, as are “we.” In ways small and large, we can seek to take steps to look at other human beings and see in them reflections of our own desiring and deserving of love. Thus, they become one of us.

And this is a principle of the godhead / creative force. As the Israelites are about to enter The Promised Land, Moses tells them that The Creator “shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. God defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving the stranger food and clothing. And you are to love those who are strangers, for you yourselves were strangers in Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:17–19). May we thus spiritually enter The Promised Land through loving our neighbor by finding common ground.

This is not an easy or quick task. Rachel Farbiarz explores the question of “you were strangers in Egypt.” We were not. And in the end, Moses (according to the narrative) outlives those who left Egypt. The Israelites he tells this to at the end of the journey in the wilderness were not those from the beginning of that journey. She tells us this:

“…helps us understand that empathy is work, that there is something awkward and uncomfortable about its habit. We must be schooled in its compulsory nature no less than 36 times, tutored in its essentialness through the heuristic of self-deception: ‘It was you who were a slave; it is you who knows the heart of a stranger.’ Moses’ elision [of the change in generations] thus helps us internalize that empathy is not always and already there, burrowed inside like a jack-in-the-box, awaiting an opening to spring forth. It is rather an iterative effort that demands rehearsal and repetition” (Treatment of the Stranger: Our existential relationship to our ancestors and how we learn empathy).

May peace prevail on earth.

©2021 Michael Dickel
All rights reserved

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