Lessons on Immigration from Jewish Readings of Genesis

This entry is written by Michael Ramberg, Mishkan Shalom Member and NSM Board Co-Chair.

According to rabbinic tradition, the command to care for the stranger is the most frequently repeated commandment in the Torah (the five books of Moses, Judaism’s central holy text). Now, lest we Jews think that our ancient ancestors who shaped the Torah were paragons of virtue with regard to welcoming strangers, we should note that if a law has to be repeated over and over, it very well could be because people weren’t following it.

While the explicit commandments to care for strangers don’t start until late in the book of Exodus, there are profound lessons underpinning the idea in the book of Genesis, which Jews are reading this time of year.

Rabbi Shai Held argues that to best understand the significance of the Torah, it’s necessary to compare its ideas with the ideas in contemporaneous or otherwise related texts. With this approach, it’s apparent that unlike many other cultures’ creation stories, the Torah’s creation story does not give one particular people a central and superior place in the scheme of creation. There is no hierarchy of groups according to this account of the order and nature of the universe.

What’s more, Bible scholar Nahum Sarna pointed out that in the creation narrative in Genesis 1 it is striking that while the plant and animal life created on days 5 and 6 of creation are created in many separate kinds, and the attentive reader would perhaps therefore expect to hear the same regarding humans, the text pointedly leaves out this description of humans. The implication is that not only is there no hierarchy of groups, there are no groups at all, at least not in an ultimate sense.

Along similar lines, there’s a midrash (a traditional elaboration of scripture) that the earth God used to create the first human being came from the four corners of the earth.

Rabbi Held further explains that the idea in Genesis 1 that humans are created in the image of God was an implicit rejection of the idea current at the time that the monarch was the human embodiment of God.  Held quoted the midrash that a chorus of angels goes before every person, proclaiming, “Here comes an image of God!”

In our current context, applying these points would have us reflect critically on the meaning we attach to national origin, at least insofar as we allow this meaning to dictate how people are treated.

So the text conveys in many ways that there is no justification for mistreating strangers, but it doesn’t stop there. Just a few chapters later in Genesis we have the story of Abraham and Sarah, a classic story of immigration. They set out for a new land in search of a life of promise and like immigrants to the US today they are respectful of the people they find in this new land while also maintaining their own traditions and customs. This decision may be one of the ways of fulfilling the divine promise that they would bring blessings to humankind, since Judaism, Christianity and Islam all trace our traditions back to this family.

Just as we are taught in the Jewish folktales about Elijah the prophet coming to the door disguised as a beggar, we should learn to treat every immigrant as perhaps being Abraham or Sarah in disguise, and carrying the potential to bestow great blessing. And the funny thing is, if we treat immigrants in this way, whether or not we are encountering Abraham or Sarah, our enactment of true hospitality, love and justice will be blessing enough.