For You Were Strangers (Exodus 22:20-23:9)
Plaut comments that protection of widows and orphans, prototypical of those tribal or kin group members with whom fate had dealt harshly, was a common injunction in many Near Eastern legal codes. What was unique in Torah was the addition of the stranger as deserving of, even requiring, the mantle of Jewish protection and concern. Even more striking, the word stranger, “ger,” is mentioned 33 times in the Torah, and the command not to oppress the stranger is, of all the commandments, mentioned most frequently.
I am always moved when I hear or recite this enjoinder. Most often, I encounter it during the seder service, which tells the story of the children of Israel’s escape from slavery to freedom. Of course, we know that the haggadah recounts not only an historical event, but also addresses our personal enslavements and offers the hope of redemptive freedom in the here and now. Thus, for me, a mystifying yet compelling link is forged between my freedom and how I treat the stranger.