Friday, 27 March 2015

Shabbat Hagadol - that which justly belongs to the stranger

In the Haftarah we read on the Shabbat before Passover is this verse;


At that time I [God] will put you on trial for judgement. I will be a swift witness against you, against those who turn away from the stranger that which is their right.


That last piece is a little tricky, ‘turn away from the stranger that which is their right.’ The Hebrew is umatei ger


The ger piece is easy to understand.

The ger is the stranger, the outsider to a society. In Biblical times it was the non-Israelite living amongst the people of Israel. The thing about the ger was that they didn’t get access to the land.

The land was divided between the tribes of Israel – and if you had land you could take care of yourself. And if you didn’t have land you had to rely on the kindness of others.

The ger, the landless of Biblical times are perfectly brought up to date with some combination of those challenging words of contemporary political discourse. Biblical ger is the immigrant, the asylum seeker, the refugee, the economic migrant, the undocumented worker, the person who comes to clean your office late at night for £6.50 an hour, the person who is too scared to go to the police to complain they’ve been mistreated by their gang leader, or made to work in unsafe conditions or for inhumanly long hours because they don’t see the police as there to support them.


The Bible – this ancient document – and the prophet book of Malachi is dated to 2,500 years ago – knows all about these unseen, unsettled, undocumented, unlanded strangers. Don’t cheat the labourer of their hire – Malachi warns. Just like so many of the other prophets.


But here’s the thing.

What is matei ger? Actually no-one quite knows, and there are as many different translations as there are translators.

There is a passage in the Palestinian Talmud, Chagigah suggesting the word has something to do with turning away - mateh. You bring on God as a witness against you if you turn away from the stateless. The Hebrew word mateh which sounds a little like matei, but is spelt a little differently. Actually, that passage in the Talmud does something very special with the spelling difference. Matei is understood as mateh mimeni or matei turning away from Me.

You mateh or turn away from the stranger, God warns, you turn away from Me, God.


God’s on the side of the powerless, the landless. To turn towards God is to turn towards the edges of society, where there is no safety net and a person can just drop off into penury.


The great Biblical commentator on Prophets, Metzudat David says that this strange word matei  means justice. That which justly belongs to the ger. You bring on God as a witness against you for taking away from the ger what is justly theirs.

Now that struck me.

Matei ger – that which justly belongs to the stranger.

The thing is the stranger doesn’t have anything. The whole test of being a stranger is being landless, being without the most important thing a person could own – in the old days.

Maybe that’s precisely the point.

The ger has only the clothes they stand in, the food they are given, the result of the kindness they are shown.

Mistreating a stranger might sound like easy pickings. After all who is going to stand up for the undocumented among us, the asylum seeker who has been told they a have to go home.

But, Malachi warns us, God is watching.


And this stark warning comes in the Haftarah for the week before Pesach.


It’s so apt.


This is from the Book of Leviticus

The stranger who dwells with you – it sounds better in the Hebrew – hager hagar itchem – The stranger who dwells with you shall be like a citizen to you. You shall love them as you love yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.


And now this story – of Passover, the whole purpose of this journey from slavery into freedom becomes apparent – it’s an ethical training in empathy.

It’s a training in knowing what it is like to be the outsider, the foreigner, the unloved, mistrusted, persecuted outsider.

And you shall love that person as you love yourself.


It’s the deepest moral lesson in Judaism.
Deeper even than the verse that often gets proffered – by luminaries as august as Rabbi Akiva or Jesus, in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

You should love your fellow as you love yourself.

I admit, it’s a good verse. But what if you don’t consider the benefit scrounger your fellow. What if you only consider your fellow the person who was born with the same passport, or comes from a country at the same level of socio-economic development.

What if, God help us all, we got to chose who is and isn’t our fellow.

That, of course, is what the Nazi’s did. Their ideologue, Heidegger, thought that persecuting Jews was perfectly ethical since we weren’t really proper human beings. Thanks.


The Bible, of course, countenances none of that self-justificatory racism. Every human being, male and female, black and white, Jewish, Muslim, Christian or faithless, is created in the image of God, you oppress any of us and you oppress God.


But the ethical demand of the Torah isn’t merely that everyone should be treated equally.

We are bidden to focus especially on the ger – the stranger, the outcast.

The test of our humanity is how much we take care of the person it is most easy to offend, the least popular kid in the playground, the one who can’t speak English properly, or doesn’t know which football team to support, or doesn’t have the right kind of passport – so can be employed on wages, or with standards that would approximate slavery.


And it’s all to do with Passover – the ethics are driven by our personal experience of being that person.

Even if we are now comfortable in the country.

Each year we intone at the Seder night – bchol dor va dor hayav adam lirot et atzmo ...

In each and every generation a person should see themselves as if they personally went forth from Egypt.

We need to touch, each and every year, what it means to be the ger.

We need to remind ourselves of the test of humanity which is how we treat not our friends, not even our family members, but the one person we are disposed to like least.


So what should be done.


It’s Passover in less than a week’s time.

And there is plenty to do.

But I urge us all to find a time to find some tale of contemporary strangerness, and bring that tale to the Seder table.

You won’t struggle to find examples.

Cotton pickers in the Ukraine, sex-trafiked workers all over the place, domestic help imprisoned by debt structures. I met, this week, with one of the Chaplains at the detained asylum seeker centre in Gatwick – the place they take the most strange of strangers and keep them under indefinite detention for no crime at all – ‘they just want people to hear their stories’ he told me.

Tell that story.

We believe in the value of telling stories.

We believe in the value of asking questions about stories of slavery.

Even if we don’t know all the answers, especially if we don’t know all the answers, we believe in the importance of asking the questions.

Tell the story and ask away at the Seder.


And one other thing.

For the last nine years our sister Synagogue, New North London, has been running an asylum seekers drop in. It started with one ger. They are now up to 800 – too many for their space. The heroic organiser behind this incredible venture has turned to us, at New London, and asked us if we could find 20 volunteers to support an overflow venue, once a month in north London. The job involves packing and distributing clothes, food, travel vouchers and shopping vouchers. No special skills needed. Just a refusal to look away from the pain experienced by gerim; just a refusal to let our experience of being oppressed and enslaved into our contemporary consciousness.

We can do this.

There will be an email in the week.

Or drop me a note if you want to know more.


Tell a story.

Think about volunteering.


So we have a defence when the time comes when we are charged with turning away that which justly belongs to the ger.

So we can claim that our own experience of suffering has indeed made us better, inspired, within us an ethics and a commitment to justice.

So we can truly be proud of our journey from slavery to freedom – because we are not quite there yet.


Shabbat shalom


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