By Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis
We came to Egypt as economic migrants (Genesis 46:4). Then came Pharaoh’s “great replacement theory” that the Israelites constituted a threat, a kind of invasion, and we were reduced to harsh labor (Exodus 1:9-10). Now, in this week’s parasha, we are departing as refugees (Exodus 13-15).
We came to Egypt by invitation (Genesis 45:17-18). Eventually we would enter Arad, Bashan, Heshbon, Edom, Midian and Moab without invitation (Numbers 21:1; 21:20; 21:34-35; 22:1). It’s the whole migrant story, a universal story, in a few verses. We, the Jewish people, encapsulate the migrant story. A story as old as humanity. Older, even, than the Torah itself.
Then, two millennia later, in 1648, came the Treaty of Westphalia and with it (at least in Europe) the concept of sovereign borders. Not much changed outside of Europe, however, and empires like Russia, China and the Ottoman imperium as well as geographically sprawling nations like Brazil, the United States and Canada simply didn’t have the means or the desire to assert modern border control. Until recently.
My own family embodies this shift. My father’s side of my family came to America before “legal” and “illegal” immigration was even a thing. My mother had to come with a passport and a green card. And this tension in America between the human need to migrate and a state need to control its borders continues, vexing us humanly and politically.
As Americans, we grapple with how to rationalize our immigration laws, control our borders and allow the kind of immigration that has supercharged American growth and success since the founding of the republic.
I, for one, understand both the need to cross boundaries and the desire for boundary control. Both are, arguably, “Jewish values.” But whatever combination of these two values each of us embraces, there is one value that the Torah endorses, emphatically: compassion, empathy and love toward the aliens who come to us.
And by emphatically, I mean this: The commandment to care for the stranger is mentioned more times than any other commandment in the Torah — more even than the command to love God! In a very real sense, Jews reject the recent Christian media campaign to “put God first.” God comes second when compared to foreigners.
According to the Talmud, Rabbi Eliezer the Great stated that “the Torah warns 36 times, and some say 46 times, not to oppress the stranger” (Babylonian Talmud, Bava M’tzia 59b). The decree is articulated as both positive (“you shall…”) and negative (“you shall not…”) mitzvot:
“You shall not wrong nor oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).
“The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens … for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34).
“You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19).
Variations on this appear in four of the five books of Moses. Is there a greater imperative than this? We are, from the time of Moses to the 20th century, the archetypal migrant/refugee/immigrant/asylum-seeker/alien/illegal/legal. Lest we forget, we declare to each other every Pesach, “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26). Even a name our people are known by exemplifies this: Hebrew/Ivri derives from the verb avar, to “pass/cross over,” making us the “boundary crossers.”
So as we Jews daily remind ourselves of our migrant past — this week, in all our Torah study, in our prayers, in our history and our very memory — let us also heed Torah and strive for tolerance and compassion — indeed, love — for modern migrants, both in our personal encounters and the policies we advocate.
Geoffrey Dennis is the self-proclaimed chief rabbi of Denton County and an instructor in the Jewish and Israel Studies Program at the University of North Texas.