“Caring for the Weak and the Vulnerable”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

Among the important mitzvot found in this week’s parasha, parashat Eikev, the Torah bids the Jew to be G-dlike by caring for the orphan and the widow, loving the proselytes and giving them bread to eat and clothes to wear.

In Deuteronomy 10:19, the Torah declares, וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר, כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם, You shall love the stranger (proselyte/convert) for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 36 times, more than any other mitzvah, the Torah exhorts the People of Israel to care for and love the גֵּר–“Gehr,” the stranger.

As the great social philosophers often proclaim: a society is judged by the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable. Judaism (Talmud Sotah 14a) demands that Jews strive to emulate G-d. This practice, known in philosophy as “Imitatio Dei,” demands that just as He [G-d] is kind, so must we be kind; just as He is filled with compassion, so must we be filled with compassion; just as He is long-suffering, so must we be long-suffering.

According to tradition, our Torah contains 613 mitzvot–365 negative mitzvot and 248 positive mitzvot. Many, if not most, of these mitzvot are revolutionary. Yet, perhaps none is more remarkable than the mitzvah to love the stranger. At a time when the entire world was dogmatically xenophobic, threatened by strangers and rejecting of outsiders, Judaism declared that loving the stranger would be the hallmark of its legal and social systems.

According to tradition, the city of Sodom was known for its venal snobbery and elitism. Strangers were treated with disdain and often subjected to physical abuse and torture. When Lot told his sons-in-law that Sodom would soon be destroyed (Genesis 19:14), they laughed at him cynically saying, “You fool, a city filled with music and culture, and you say that Sodom will be destroyed!”

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch offers an extensive exposition on mitzvah number 431, entitled, “To love the stranger (the convert).” The Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that because the convert forsook his family and his nation, to take shelter under the wings of a new, strange nation, the People of Israel must be particularly sensitive to his loneliness and vulnerability.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch warns to be especially careful when speaking with a convert, making certain not to be insensitive or to bring up unseemly behaviors from the past. The Chinuch further notes that the community must be particularly mindful to treat converts carefully, to show concern for their needs and to come to their aid, since as fragile strangers, they have no one to turn to for help.

In a remarkable and unexpected departure from his normal style, the Sefer Ha’Chinuch concludes his analysis of the mitzvah of loving the stranger by extending it, insisting on the need to show sensitivity to all people. The Sefer Ha’Chinuch declares that Jews must learn from this “precious mitzvah,” to have compassion on all people who are strangers, including those who come from other cities or foreign countries, and are now alone in new cities and countries. Later commentators have noted that particularly because they are alone, all strangers need to be embraced, including newcomers to a neighborhood, new students in school, and new employees.

The Kli Yakar comments on the verse (Genesis 47:21), וְאֶת הָעָם הֶעֱבִיר אֹתוֹ לֶעָרִים, that Joseph transferred the people of Egypt from one end of Egypt to the other. The Kli Yakar explains that Joseph did this in order to make the Egyptians aware of what it means to be strangers, since those who never experienced being a stranger cannot have full compassion on those who are.

My esteemed friend and famed author, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, has an especially sensitive ear that is particularly attuned to human needs. Sensitivity is a theme that recurs in many of his writings. He discusses the prohibition of a would-be-customer entering a store to ask a salesperson the price of an item when he has no intention of buying. Rabbi Telushkin also suggests that when one hears the siren of a fire engine or a speeding ambulance, that instead of expressing annoyance with the shrill noise, he recommends that people utter a little prayer that the firefighters reach the scene of the fire in time to save lives, and that the ambulance successfully transport the sick safely so that they may be properly treated and hopefully healed.

When studied objectively, it is obvious that these sensitivities are beyond human sensitivities. Clearly, these superhuman sensitivities are ultimately Divine sensitivities, which have been transmitted to the world through the Al-mighty’s Torah.

The sensitivity that is found abundantly throughout this ancient document, the Torah, is truly breathtaking, and surely points to the Divine Hand in its authorship.

Those who are fortunate to have learned Torah, must embrace these wonderful values. Only in this manner is there hope that the world will be perfected, hastening the Ultimate Redemption in our own lifetimes.

May you be blessed.