Our Obligation to Refugees: The Exodus from Egypt

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 19“For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt” – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

By Yuval Cherlow

The importance of the story of the Exodus from Egypt needs no proof in the world of Judaism. Remembrance of the Exodus is the headline of the Ten Commandments, and, as such, underpins the basic and fundamental commandment of faith. Rabbi Yehuda Halevy declared that acknowledgement of the Blessed One, Holy Be He, as the liberator from Egypt is the foundation of faith, and even Maimonides, who based the source of faith on the story of creation in Genesis, determined that the commandment of faith, as understood from the Ten Commandments, is the cardinal commandment. The Creator of the Universe did not create the world and then depart it, but rather He is ever present in the world, as the god of history. Moreover, we recall the Exodus from Egypt daily, and from the time of Rabbi Elazar ben Azariyah, we even recount the story at night. Numerous events during the yearly cycle derive from the Exodus from Egypt – from Passover and Sukkot in which the Exodus story is at the center, and through all of the Torah holidays, during which we are called “to remember the Exodus from Egypt.”

The Exodus has its place in the Sabbath too, since, in the wording of the Tablets that appears in the Torah portion V’Ethchanan, in the book of Deuteronomy, we find that the Sabbath itself is a day of remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Our sages explained, in various ways, the connection between the Sabbath rest and the respite of the slave: one of the explanations is the obligation imposed on every person to share the prosperity he has received with others.

We should note that there is an entire system of commandments related to the Exodus from Egypt that is not connected to faith or the holidays, but rather to the societal and moral aspects of life. The Torah teaches us that one who has been a slave and has experienced the anticipation of a day of rest and respite from labor may not deny such respite to his subjects and slaves. The Torah tells us specifically, “so that your male and female slave may rest as you do,” thus enjoining us that one may not ignore the need for rest that exists in the soul of his male and female slaves, and must grant them this respite, since they share an awareness of slavery. Indeed, he was once part of an enslaved people, and has therefore made a covenant with all slaves; therefore, he is obliged to provide for their respite on the Sabbath.

The societal aspect of the memory of the Exodus from Egypt is not restricted to the Sabbath day. In Exodus 22:20 we read, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” According to Halacha, this refers to the prohibition against wronging a proselyte (Ger Tzedek). But it is a well-known principle that a text may be interpreted. From the text we discern that the intent is also to the stranger (Zar), inasmuch as we were not proselytes in Egypt but rather strangers residing there (and this is the meaning of the text “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”). Thus, we see that the obligation to refrain from wronging the proselyte applies to every stranger residing among us, although the obligation is of a different degree than the prohibition against wronging a proselyte. Furthermore, even if the commandment formally applies only to a proselyte, in principle the Torah once again illuminates the moral obligation to remember our enslavement in Egypt, and the covenant between us and all who are oppressed.

Is this principle specific only to Egypt or is it a general principle of Torah? Let us remind ourselves what was done to us seventy years ago: not only those who would destroy us, but also those who closed the gates, who provided no respite, who blocked our path on the way to the Land of Israel and sent us back there. Should we declare that Torah teaches us a principle that is broader than the narrow meaning of remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt? It seems to me that the Torah indeed teaches us the moral principle that all who have endured suffering and exploitation, marginalization and alienation, have entered into a covenant of solidarity with all oppressed of the world. And this is the basis of our obligation to refugees.

It is very important to emphasize that this moral obligation is not our only obligation. We have responsibility for other issues as well, and we should not focus only on this. We are responsible for the Jewish identity of the State of Israel; we are responsible for our security and the safety of its citizens; and we also have responsibility to refrain from tasks that are beyond our capability. The considerations are complex. Therefore, I do not believe that we must solve the problem of the refugees by ourselves. My intention is only to teach one of the central moral considerations according to the Torah, and our responsibility to consider it when we determine Israel’s policy.

Remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt leads us in two contradictory but complementary directions. The first is expressed in the Passover which distinguished between the faithful, who sprinkled blood on the doorframe of their houses, and the others. This Passover is the foundation to understanding the choice of the Israelites and their separation from the nations of the world. Starting with the Exodus from Egypt, the People of Israel journeys forth on its unique path; receives the holy Torah; and gives it life in the Land of Israel, to which it has been bound since the days of our forebears. This understanding is the source of the Torah blessing unique to us: “who has chosen us from all nations and given us His Torah.” The People of Israel was chosen to bear and hallow the name of the Lord in the world, and continues the journey of Abraham, forefather of the faithful, to the Land of Israel. The second direction leads to the moral responsibility inherent in this faith. The Lord of the Universe who took us out of Egypt is the Father of those at the fringes of society – the stranger, the slave, the maidservant and the bondsman, the orphan and the widow. Thus an integral part of the renewal of our eternal covenant with the Exodus from Egypt is the renewal of our recognition of this responsibility. “And God seeks those who have been driven away” is one of the most signi cant aspects of Divine Providence, and of our subsequent responsibility.

The actualization of these two sensibilities is also part of our obligation in every generation to see ourselves as though we were liberated from Egypt. We are also commanded in present days to renew the covenant with our Jewish national identity, separate and distinct from all nations. This identity should be expressed in myriad ways and it is an inseparable part of our vision. In a multi-cultural world that seeks to blur national boundaries and collective identity, we re-enact the Exodus from Egypt that distinguished us from these trends and commanded us to establish a kingdom of priests and to be a holy people. Simultaneously, and without contradiction, we each experience ourselves, personally, as slaves in Egypt, nurturing our moral sensitivity on several levels. We are obligated to provide a day of rest for the foreign workers among us and maintain respectful and honest relations with them as long as they reside among us; and we are obligated to provide those in need with a monetary grant to start a new life. The two lines drawn from the Exodus from Egypt converge into the essential core of our historical consciousness. Fortified by our memory of the Exodus from Egypt, we address the reality of our lives, striving to shape it with the decency to do what is right and just.

Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the head of the Orot Shaul yeshiva in Ra’anana and one of the founders of the Tzohar Rabbinical Association. He is a member of high level ethical committees in Israel.