"Love Thy Stranger"

  • Rav Zvi Shimon








This shiur is dedicated in memory of Dr. William Major z"l.


The VBM mourns the untimely passing of Adam Bengal z”l of Ktav Publishing House,
a true professional who made an important contribution to Jewish publishing.  Our thoughts are with his family.  Yehi zikhro barukh.





'Love Thy Stranger'

By Rav Zvi Shimon





In this week's Torah reading we are commanded:


"For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).


            According to our Sages, the stranger referred to in these verses is the proselyte who converts and comes to live amongst the people of Israel.  We are commanded to love the proselyte.  This commandment overlaps with the general commandment of loving thy neighbor: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).  Although the proselyte also comes under the category of 'your neighbor' who you must love, the Torah nevertheless commands to love him separately.


            The Torah not only commands, as a positive injunction, to love the stranger; it also warns, in a prohibitive commandment, not to maltreat him: "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:20).  The same justification "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" used in the positive commandment to love the stranger is used in the prohibition of maltreating him.  Interestingly, the prohibition of wronging a stranger also overlaps with the general prohibition of wrongdoing another person: "Do not wrong one another, but fear your God" (Leviticus 25:17).


            This overlap of commandments is noted by the enumerators of the commandments of the Torah, among them, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh (Lists and elaborates the 613 commandments, anonymous author, Spain, 13th century):


"Even though he is included in the commandment about Israelites, regarding whom it is stated, 'but you shall love your neighbor' (Leviticus 19:18), since a righteous convert is clearly included in the category of 'your neighbor,' the Eternal God gave us an additional precept about him specifically in regard to affection for him.


The matter is the same in regard to the restraint against cheating him: Even though he is included in the scope of the admonition, 'And you shall not wrong one another' (Leviticus (25:17), Scripture gave us another prohibition about it specifically concerning him, by stating, 'And a 'stranger' you shall not wrong' (Exodus 22:20).  It was then taught in the Talmud that a person who treats a convert ill transgresses both the injunction 'you shall not wrong one another' etc. and the admonition, 'a stranger you shall not wrong.'  Likewise, then [here] one would disobey the precept 'and you shall love your neighbor,' and the precept 'you shall love the stranger.'


            The Sefer Ha-chinukh notes that one who transgresses any of the two commandments relating to the proselyte actually transgresses two commandments, the specific commandment relating to the stranger and the parallel general commandment relating to all people.  Although the Sefer Ha-chinukh marks this peculiarity, he does not explain the reason for it.  Why are there distinct commandments in relation to the stranger when he is anyway included in the general parallel commandments?  Why did the Torah see fit to command separately in relation to the treatment of the proselyte?


I.  The Vulnerable Stranger


            Our Sages emphasize the vulnerability of the stranger due to his past, his life prior to converting to Judaism:


"If a man was a penitent, one must not say to him, 'Remember your former deeds.'  If he was a son of proselytes one must not taunt him, 'Remember the deeds of your ancestors,' because it is written, (Exodus 22:20) "You shall not wrong a stranger nor oppress him" (Mishna, tractate Bava Metzia, 4:10)


            It is easy to denigrate proselytes.  People can always belittle them on account of their sinful past.  This disadvantage of the proselyte gives rise to the need for special commandments directed exclusively in relation to him.  The Torah prohibits reminding the proselyte of his past and of relating to him differently on account of it.  Our Sages continue this line of interpretation in the rationale offered by the Torah for the proselyte commandments:


"What is the meaning of the verse 'You shall not wrong a stranger nor oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt' (Exodus 22:20)?  It has been taught: Rabbi Nathan said: Do not taunt your neighbor with the blemish you yourself have" (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Bava Metzia 59b)


            The Torah's rationale for the proselyte commandments is: "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."  How does Israelite history connect to loving and not wronging the proselyte?  Our Sages explain that Israel has the very same 'blemish' as the proselyte; they, too, were strangers in a foreign land.  Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105) elaborates this point as follows:


"For you were strangers"(Exodus 22:20)- "If you hurt him, he too is able to hurt you and to say to you: 'you are also descended from strangers."


            The proselyte can denigrate the Israelites in the very same manner that he is denigrated.  The necessity for a special commandment relating to the proselyte rests in his vulnerability due to his problematic past.  The rationale for the commandments relating to the stranger is that the Israelites have a similar history which makes them just as vulnerable.


            A diametrically opposite explanation for the Torah's distinct emphasis on the proselyte is raised by a different source of our Sages:


"It has been taught: Rabbi Eliezer the Great said: Why did the Torah warn against [wrongdoing] the proselyte in thirty-six, or as others say, in forty-six, places?  Because he has a strong inclination to evil" (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b)


            Why is there such a concentration on the proselyte?  Rabbi Eliezer the Great answers that the Torah is not so concerned with the proselyte's past as he is with his future.  If the proselyte is maltreated there is a strong likelihood of his leaving the Israelite community and reverting to his previous way of life.  His abandonment of Judaism might lead to his total deterioration and has potential for a terrible desecration of God's name.  The proselyte may become disillusioned with Judaism and completely reject it.  In light of the sensitivity and precariousness of the proselyte's situation, the Torah adds specific commandments relating to him.


            The explanations offered so far for the Torah's specific commandments in relation to the treatment of the proselyte concentrated on dangers stemming from either the proselyte's past or from his future.  However, the majority of the commentators focused on dangers rooted in the stranger's PRESENT position in the community.


            A clue to the status of the stranger in biblical times is the coupling, throughout Scripture, of the stranger with the fatherless and the widow.  The Torah continually exhorts to look out for the needs of these unfortunates and warns against taking advantage of them:


"When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the STRANGER, the FATHERLESS and the WIDOW" (Deuteronomy 24:19; see also ibid. 24:20-22; 26:12)


"Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the STRANGER, the FATHERLESS and the WIDOW" (ibid. 27:19; see also 24:17,18)


The stranger, usually poor and helpless, was easy prey for sinister people looking to profit by taking advantage of the weak.  God commands the Israelites to help the weaker segments of the society and warns them to beware of harming them.


            The vulnerability of the orphan and of the widow is obvious.  Why is the stranger placed in the same lot?  The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) comments:


"The reason for the prohibition 'You shall not wrong a stranger' (Exodus 22:20)...is that he has no family roots" (Ibn Ezra's short commentary to Exodus 22:20)


            Just as the orphan and widow lack family structure and support, so too with the stranger; he left his family to join the people of Israel and, therefore, has no family to assist him in times of need.  The people of Israel are commanded to be sympathetic to the difficult conditions of those without a family.  The community must help fill in the gap in these individuals' lives and provide them with any necessary assistance.


            Rabbeinu Bechayei (Rabbi Bechayei ben Asher, Spain, end of 13th beginning of 14th century) further elaborates:


"In several places in the Torah does God warn regarding the [treatment of] strangers, because the stranger finds himself alone in a foreign land."


The stranger is not only uprooted from his family; he has no social framework at all.  He is a complete loaner with no family or friends.  He knows no one!


            The Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) highlights a different vulnerability of the stranger:


"Since they [the strangers] do not know anything about the ways of the land, and it is therefore easy to deceive them, the Torah warned about their treatment" (Exodus 22:20)


            According to the Chizkuni, it is not the lonesomeness and lack of family or social framework which make the stranger vulnerable.  Rather, it is his unfamiliarity with the norms and customs of his new land and people.  Foreigners are easy prey for the seasoned veterans.  God prohibits taking advantage of the stranger's unacquaintedness with his new society.


            The Sefer Ha-chinukh expands this prohibition beyond the proselyte:


"It is for us to learn from this precious commandment to take pity on any man who is in a town or city that is not his native ground and site of the family of his fathers.  Let us not maltreat him in any way, finding him alone, with those who would aid him quite far from him - just as we see that the Torah adjures us to have compassion on anyone who needs help.  With these qualities we will merit to be treated with compassion by the Eternal Lord, Be He blessed" (ibid.).


            It is not only the proselyte who must be treated benevolently.  It is forbidden to take advantage of the unfamiliarity of any and all foreigners.  All newcomers must be treated with compassion and consideration.


            According to this line of interpretation, how are we to understand the rationale "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:32-34) offered by the Torah for the commandments directed towards the stranger?


            According to the Ibn Ezra, the clause "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" obliges us to remember what it was like when we were strangers, thereby enabling us to empathize with the stranger in our midst.  In contrast to Rashi, cited above, who viewed Israel's experience as strangers in Egypt as a weakness, a blemish which could be used against them by the stranger himself, the Ibn Ezra, considers the experience positively; it is our past personal experience as a nation that implores and enables us to identify and empathize with the stranger's position.


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) offers a totally different explanation to the rationale "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:"


"There is no reason why all strangers [from countries outside the land of Egypt] should be included here because of our having been strangers in the land of Egypt!  And there is no reason why they be assured for ever against being wronged or oppressed because we were once strangers there! ... The correct interpretation appears to me to be that He is saying: 'Do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, thinking as you might that none can deliver him out of your hand; for you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt and I saw the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppressed you, and I avenged your cause on them, because I behold the tears of such who are oppressed and have no comforter, and I deliver each one from him that is too strong for him.  Likewise you shall not afflict the widow and the fatherless child, for I will hear their cry, for all these people do not rely upon themselves but trust in Me."


            Our personal experience as strangers in Egypt is not aimed at facilitating our ability to empathize with the proselyte but rather is a warning of the consequences of failing to do so.  The Egyptians paid a very heavy price for oppressing the strangers in their land.  God does not tolerate the maltreatment of the stranger.  Failure to adhere to the commandments relating to the stranger will result in harsh retribution similar to that suffered by the Egyptians.



II.  The Righteous Stranger


            So far we have attempted to understand why the Torah mentions the stranger in tandem with the orphan and widow.  We suggested that the common denominator between these individuals is vulnerability and analyzed the different understandings of the vulnerability of the stranger.  However, Scripture reveals a different aspect to the stranger:


"You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord.  When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.  The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:32-34).


            In the book of Leviticus, the commandment regarding the treatment of the stranger immediately follows the commandment of respecting the aged and the wise.  This juxtaposition of commandments differs drastically from the previously examined connection between the stranger, orphan and widow.  The placing of the stranger adjacent to the aged and wise deserving of respect no longer presents an image of vulnerability and weakness but rather of prominence and import.  According to the juxtaposition of commandments in Leviticus, the stranger is not one in need of charity and compassion, but rather is deserving of respect and admiration.  This laudatory view of the stranger is not unique to the Torah.  It exists within the daily prayer service.  The thirteenth blessing of the 'amida' prayer, a blessing for the righteous, reads:


"May your compassion, Lord our God, be bestowed over the righteous, the pious, the leaders of your people, the remnant of their scribes, the TRUE PROSELYTE and towards us" (Daily prayers, the 'Amida,' 13th blessing).


The compilers of the prayers saw fit to mention the proselyte amongst the most righteous and holy.  What makes this new member of the faith worthy of such honorable mention?  Why should a convert be held in such high esteem?


            An inspiring and beautiful homiletic commentary of the Sages may provide us with an answer:


"[The stranger] shall be to you as one of your citizens" (Leviticus 19:34) - Rabbi Alexandri said: How loved is the stranger in the eyes of the Lord, who commanded regarding them in forty-eight instances.  [The stranger] is like a deer that joins a shepherd's herd and is favorable in his eyes.  He says, "In this one I have not invested from its birth but it joined my sheep [on it's own] therefore I love it.  Such are the righteous proselytes.  God said, "since he came under my wing, he "shall be to you as one of your citizens"(idrash Ha-chadash on Leviticus' cited in 'Torah Sheleima').


            The merit of the proselyte lies in his joining the people and the faith of Israel out of his own free will.  He is like a wild deer who has roamed free all his life and then taken upon himself the duties and responsibilities of God's herd.  The voluntary choice to worship God elevates the proselyte to the level of the most righteous.


            The Torah commands to "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."  Just as God loves Israel and redeemed them from bondage in Egypt where they were strangers, so too must love be bestowed upon strangers who join the faith.  This commandment is one of emulating God's relation to his 'chosen strangers.'


            The opposing portrayals of the stranger, vulnerability versus spiritual prominence, are not contradictory.  They may reflect different types of proselytes or different traits inherent to the proselyte.  In fact, the opposing portrayals of the stranger may explain the existence of both a positive and negative commandment in relation to the stranger.  The prohibition of wronging the stranger protects him from abuse and manipulation which may result from the vulnerability of being an outsider.  The obligation to love the stranger stems from his elevated spiritual status resulting from his voluntary attachment to the Jewish people.



III.  The Equal Stranger


            In addition to vulnerability and righteousness, the Torah intimates an additional reason for the existence of specific commandments devoted to the treatment of the stranger.  The proselyte is often mentioned adjacent to exhortations regarding justice in the legal system.  For example:


"You shall not subvert the rights of your needy in their disputes.  Keep far from a false charge ... Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right.  You shall not oppress a STRANGER ..." (Exodus 23:6-9, see also Leviticus 19:33-36).


            There is deep concern that the status of the stranger may influence the passing of judgement.  Regarding the stranger as inferior leads to injustice.  The Torah emphasizes the absolute necessity that all people be treated equally before the law.  Equality is the foundation of justice.  This is formulated in the Torah as follows:


"There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages.  You and the stranger shall be alike before the Lord" (Numbers 15:15).


            There is equality before the judge and before God, in the court and in the temple of worship.  Equality is the basis for both civil and religious order.


            Rabbi Hirsch reaches a similar conclusion in his analysis of the following verses:


"He that sacrifices to any god other than the Lord shall be destroyed. You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:19,20).


            How are these two verses linked?  What connects the prohibition of worshiping other gods to the treatment of the stranger?  Rabbi Hirsch explains:


"You shall not wrong a stranger - is in close connection with the preceding verse.  There we were told that even a native-born Jew of the purest descent loses his right of existence in the Jewish Community the moment he departs in the least degree from the purity of the basic principle of the Jewish conception of God.  And in contrast, a heathen born and bred, as soon as he attaches himself to Judaism by simply acknowledging the Jewish principle of the conception of God, can demand the fullest equality and the full equal rights in Law with any Jew.  By the juxtaposition of these two verses, the great, oft-repeated in the Torah, basic law is laid down, that it is not race, not descent, not birth or country or property, altogether nothing external or due to chance, but simply and purely the inner spiritual and moral worth of a human being, which gives him all the rights of a man and of a citizen.  This basic principle is further ensured against neglect by the additional motive 'for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.'  Here it says simply and absolutely 'for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,' your whole misfortune in Egypt was that you were 'foreigners,' 'aliens' there.  As such, according to the views of other nations, you had no RIGHT to be there, had no claim to rights of settlement, home or property.  Accordingly, you had no equal rights in appeal against unfair or unjust treatment.  As aliens you were without any rights in Egypt, out of that grew all your slavery and wretchedness.  Therefore beware, so runs the warning, form making rights in your own State conditional on anything other than on that simple humanity which every human being as such bears within him.  With any limitation of these human rights the gate is opened to the whole horror of Egyptian mishandling of human beings."


            The equality accorded to the proselyte is demonstrated in a brilliant response of the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, Egypt, 1138-1204) to Ovadiah the convert.  The proselyte Ovadiah asks whether he may use the same formulation of prayer pronounced by all Israelites; may he relate to the Hebrew patriarchs as his own.  Is Abraham his father?  Does thanking God for taking us out of Egypt include gratitude for his own personal deliverance?  After all, his ancestors were not among those who toiled in mud and mire to build the pyramids for Pharaoh?


            The Rambam responds to the proselyte's question as follows:


"I received the question of the wise scholar Ovadiah, the proselyte.  You ask as to whether you, being a proselyte, should utter the prayers: 'Our God and God of OUR FATHERS, Who has separated US from the nations; Who has brought US out of Egypt.'

Pronounce all prayers as they are written and do not change anything.  Your prayer and blessing should be the same as that of any other Israelite, regardless of whether you pray in private or conduct the service.  The explanation is as follows: Abraham our Father taught mankind the true belief and the Unity of God, repudiating idolatry; through him many of his own household and also others were guided to keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice' (Genesis 18:19).  Thus, he who becomes a proselyte, and he who confesses the unity of God, as taught in the Torah, is a disciple of Abraham our Father.  Such persons are of his household.  Just as Abraham influenced his contemporaries through his word and teaching, so too does he lead to belief all the future generations through the testament he gave to his children and to his household.  In this sense Abraham is the father both of his descendants who follow his ways and of his disciples and all the proselytes.

You should therefore pray: 'Our God and the God of our fathers,' for Abraham is also YOUR father.  In no respect is there a difference between us and you.  And certainly you should say: 'Who has given unto US the Law,' because the Law was given to us and to the proselytes alike, as it is said: 'As for the congregation, there shall be one statute both for you and for the stranger who lives with you; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord" One law and one ordinance shall be both for you and for the stranger that lives with you" (Numbers 15:16-17).  Keep in mind, that most of our ancestors who left Egypt were idol worshippers; they mingled with the Egyptian heathens and imitated their ways, until God sent Moses our Teacher, the master of all the prophets.  He separated us from these nations, initiated us into the belief in God, us and all the proselytes, and gave us one Law.

Do not think little of your origin: We are descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but your descent is from the Creator, for in the words of Isaiah: 'One shall say: I am the Lord's; and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob' (Isaiah 44:5)."


The criteria for determining whether one is a descendant of Abraham is not biological but rather an issue of faith.  Abraham spread his belief by opening his tent to all who were prepared to enter and learn.  Those who accepted his teachings were considered part of Abraham's household.  In this tradition, all who accept the teachings of Judaism are considered descendants of Abraham.


            The Rambam goes one step further.  Even the Israelites who left Egypt were, in some manner, proselytes themselves.  While in Egypt, the Israelites worshipped idols.  It was Moses who brought them back into the monotheistic faith and, as it were "converted" them.  Thus, the Jewish nation is a nation of proselytes!


            Although the Rambam does not explicitly state this, it would appear that he is offering a novel interpretation to the rationale "for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." This clause may be understood to mean that we must treat the proselyte equally, as a full-fledged Israelite since, we are, in essence all proselytes ourselves.  This approach explains the overlap of commandments between the treatment of the stranger and the treatment of all Israelites.  We are commanded to "Love the stranger" (Deuteronomy 10:19) and to "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18).  The Torah warns "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him" (Exodus 22:20) and also commands "Do not wrong one another" (Leviticus 25:17).  The blatant similarity between the commandments relating to proselytes and those relating to all Israelites is not coincidental.  It teaches us that the proselyte and Israelite are actually one and the same.  The proselyte is to be treated exactly like all Israelites.  Your stranger is your neighbor.  Love thy stranger!