For You Were Strangers

June 24, 2009

6 min read


Ekev (Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25 )

This week's parsha continues Moses' talk to the People, preparing them for entrance into the Land of Israel. It is full of encouragement to trust in God's help and warning that they should be worthy of that help.

A brief comment leads to insights in psychology and the Torah.

Deuteronomy 10:19

"And you shall love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."



Because you were strangers - RASHI: A blemish that you possess, do not attribute to your friend.



Rashi's comment seems simple enough. It recalls similar Rashi-comments in Exodus 22:20 and Leviticus 19:34 which also refer to strangers (i.e. converts).

Let us compare these comments and see a question that arises from such a comparison:

(1) Our verse:

"And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

(2) Exodus 22:20:

"A stranger don't taunt or oppress, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

(3) Leviticus 19:34:

"And when a stranger dwells with you in your land, do not taunt him, and you should love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."

As you compare these verses and Rashi's comment here, what would you ask?

Your Question:



A Question: While all three verses contain the same phrase, "...because you were strangers in the land of Egypt," and on these verses Rashi also comments, "a blemish you possess, do not attribute to another," yet these verses differ from ours. In the other two verses there is a prohibition to harm the stranger. In Exodus 22:20 it says, "Don't taunt or oppress a stranger." In Leviticus 19:34 it says, "Don't taunt him." Our verse, on the other hand, only says, "Love the stranger." There is no prohibition against taunting him. To use Rashi's phrasing, there is no mention of "blemishes" in our verse.

The question is: Why does Rashi mention blemishes? Rashi's warning is appropriate when there is a prohibition against taunting him, but our verse says nothing about acting disrespectfully towards the stranger. Our verse speaks of loving him. Why does Rashi repeat the aphorism, "a blemish you possess, do not attribute to another"?

Can you see what prompted this comment?

Your Answer:



An Answer: Our verse enjoins us to love the stranger "because we were strangers in Egypt." What sense does that make? It is understandable that we should love someone because he did us a favor. But to love someone just because we had similar experiences? Because both he and we were strangers? Why? It makes as much sense to say, "Love basketball players because you too were once a basketball player!"

How does Rashi's comment deal with this difficulty?

Your Answer:



An Answer: Rashi is telling us that since the Torah reinforces the command to "love the stranger" with the reminiscence of our Egyptian experience, the point of the verse must be: do not inflict on the stranger that which we went through when we were strangers in Egypt. In this light, "love" consists of not doing evil towards the stranger; of not taking advantage of the stranger because he is less powerful than we as we were less powerful than our Egyptian taskmasters.

This is reminiscent of Hillel's interpretation of "Love your neighbor as yourself," which he gave to the gentile who professed interest in converting to Judaism. His words, "What is hateful to you, do not do to another" are a way of rendering the Torah's positive command of "loving" as a negative prohibition not to harm another.

In our verse as well, Rashi transposes the Torah's positive command to love the stranger into a negative admonition "don't ascribe to him your faults."



It is interesting to note in this regard, that psychologists have understood the dynamics underlying negative, racist, stereotypes, the prejudices people hold for certain minorities in their midst, to be, in reality, projected images of their own weaknesses. They project onto others those traits which are distasteful to them and which they cannot accept as part of themselves. This projection ascribes to the other their own "wickedness," thereby accomplishing two psychological maneuvers at once – denial of one's own imperfection as well as projecting the anger one has for oneself onto another. This is exactly the meaning of "A blemish you have do not attribute to another." The Torah's psychological astuteness predates Freudian defense mechanisms by a few years.



As I pondered this verse and the Rashi-comment on it, I wondered why the Torah had to use the idea of "love" to begin with. If the verse means the avoidance of doing harm to the stranger, why say "you shall love the stranger"? That seems a bit much.

Then I noticed the context of the verse and I saw something interesting.



This section begins with verse 10:12, which says:

"Now Israel, what does Hashem, your God, ask of you? Only to fear Hashem, your God, to go in all of His ways, to love Him" etc.

After Moses tells us to "go in all of His ways," the verse (Deut. 10:19) continues to tell us of His ways:

"He does justice to the orphan and the widow and He loves the stranger to give him bread and clothes."

We see that this whole section is a lesson in Imitatio Dei, to imitate God's ways. He loves the stranger, so you too shall love the stranger. That is probably why this language was used here.

The idea of love – God's love for Israel, Israel's love for God and God and man's love of others – is a central theme in this section. This is attested to by the fact that the word "love" appears seven times in this parsha – from verse 10:12 until the end of the parsha. (Count them: Verses 10:12,15,18,19; 11:1,13,22.) This is a telltale sign that the Torah wants to emphasize this idea of love. (For a fuller discussion of the significance of the "Seven" Code in the Torah, see "Studying the Torah: A Guide to In-depth Interpretation.")


Shabbat Shalom,
Avigdor Bonchek

Next Steps