The Exodus and Immigration

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The debate about immigration reform heated up again this week with the President and Republican leadership publicly sparring over who is to blame for a lack of progress in an area that all agree is critically important to the future of our country. Immigration is as controversial and emotionally driven a topic as any, with passionate views held on all sides of the issues.


Are our borders secure enough, and if not, what more should be done? Are our quotas too strict or too lenient? What should happen with illegal immigrants, their children and sometimes grandchildren who are already fully entrenched in this country?


For better or worse, I have not yet personally formed an opinion on immigration reform. Clearly there are merits for, and compelling arguments to support, multiple positions. I raise this issue here and specifically now during Pesach, not to provide a solution or definitive opinion, but to suggest that among the many variables we consider when weighing this significant issue is the Torah’s emphatic directive that one of the foremost lessons of the Exodus is to be kind and welcoming to strangers for we were once immigrants and foreigners ourselves:


Do not say cruel things to a stranger and do not oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shemos 22:20)


Do not pressure the stranger. You know the feelings of a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shemos 23:9)


Do not turn in a slave to his master when he flees to you from his master. Let him live with you in your midst, in the place he chooses in one of your gates as suits him; don’t oppress him. (Devarim 23:16)


Indeed, this mitzvah is mentioned no less than thirty-six times in the Torah.   While the halachik application of this injunction may refer specifically to converts to Judaism, the simple understanding of the text as our commentators interpret it, is to be kind to non-Jewish immigrants to Israel who come from other lands and pledge to observe the seven Noahide laws as expected of them.


Why does the Torah always connect our obligation to feel for the stranger to our experience of leaving Egypt? Had we not experienced discrimination in Egypt, would we be permitted to be harsh or cold to the stranger?


Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt”l explained (Reflections of the Rav, pp. 190-191):


Whenever the Torah wants to impress upon us the Mitzva of having compassion and sympathy for the oppressed in society, it reminds us of our similar helplessness and lowly status during our bondage in Egypt. The most defenseless elements in society are usually the slaves, strangers (proselytes), widows, and orphans, and we are repeatedly enjoined by the Torah to be sensitive to their plight: ‘You shall not pervert the justice due a stranger or to the fatherless; nor take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember that you were a slave in Egypt’…


The Egyptian experience may therefore be regarded as the fountainhead and moral inspiration for the teaching of compassion which is so pervasive in Jewish Law. It sharpened the Jew’s ethical sensitivity and moral awareness. The Midrash has R. Nehemiah say this explicitly: ‘the Egyptian bondage was of great value for us, since it served to implant within us the quality of kindness and mercy.’ Ours is a singularly ethical culture, which expresses itself through a heightened regard for human rights and dignity.


Compassion is a distinguishing characteristic of the Jewish people, but yet it is a natural expression of man’s being created in the Divine image, tzelem Elokim, an endowment which all mankind possesses in common.


Tzelem Elokim signifies only a capacity to love, not the necessity of loving. This capacity, which all people possess, can be and is frequently superseded, but when it becomes a necessity, it cannot be suppressed. It flows naturally and is indigenous to one’s character. The Egyptian experience sought to transform the Jews into a people to whom compassion would be a necessity, not merely capacity.


As we seek to identify with the stranger and foreigner today, we need not look all the way back to our experience of being slaves in Egypt. Sadly, we can draw from the feeling of otherness and being outsiders that remains yet today.


Though exactly who distributed the leaflets is unclear, just this week, notices were sent around the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, demanding that “all citizens of Jewish descent, over 16 years of age and residing within the republic's territory are required to report to the Commissioner for Nationalities in the Donetsk Regional Administration building and register." The notices further demand that Jews pay a $50 registration fee.


Secretary of State Kerry addressed the leaflets saying, “Just in the last couple of days, notices were sent to Jews in one city indicating that they have to identify themselves as Jews. In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable -- it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable."


That the Jew is still viewed as a stranger and foreigner in the Ukraine in 2014 is sadly not terribly surprising. However, what is both surprising and extremely disturbing is just how much of a stranger Jews remain, even here in the United States, the most welcoming and kind home we have ever known.


Following the shooting in Kansas City of the eve of Pesach, an article on anti-Semitism in America shared: “The Federal Bureau of Investigation keeps statistics, the most recent of which are for 2012. In the United States that year there were 6,573 hate-crime incidents reported to the bureau… Of the religion-prompted hate crimes, 65 percent were aimed at Jews, a share relatively unchanged from five years earlier (69 percent) and another five before that (65 percent). In contrast, 11 percent of religious-bias crimes in 2012 were against Muslims.”


It is not just the white supremacist that opened fire in the Jewish Community Center who holds outrageous positions about our people.   His feelings are apparently more widespread, as no less than the mayor of the shooter’s hometown in Marionville, Missouri, essentially agrees with him. “There’s some things going on in this country that’s destroying us. We’ve got a false economy. And it’s some of those corporations, are run by Jews, cause the names are there.” He previously wrote, “The Jew-run medical industry has succeeded in destroying the United States work force. That is why our factories left.” He added that the medical industry “made a few Jews rich by killin’ us off.”


To be clear, I do not know what immigration reforms would best serve America and I am certainly not advocating for any in particular. Immigration is a difficult, complex, and critically important topic that deserves great attention, thought and analysis. Legislation needs to be just, fair, and importantly, promote security and safety.


What I do know is that among all of our logical and factual considerations and variables in forming an opinion, the Torah demands that we turn our memory of leaving Egypt into empathy and compassion for strangers and their plight.