Tuesday, May 15, 2018

D’var Behar-Bechukotai

In reading this past week’s parsha, I found several verses particularly troubling.
“Such male and female slaves as you may have—it is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also buy them from among the children of aliens resident among you, or from their families that are among you, whom they begot in your land. These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time.” (Leviticus 25:44-46)
This stands in stark contrast to what I remember reading and learning elsewhere, including during the many Passover seders I’ve attended over the years.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)
And again a chapter later:
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
What’s going on here now one book later? I decided to check each passage for context. The Exodus text takes place during Moses’ ascent to Mount Sinai while the Jews were still wandering through the desert and nomadic. The latter, however, has an interesting preface toward the start of the chapter.
“Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the LORD.” (Leviticus 25:2)
It’s not clear, but it seems this preface “when you enter the land” may apply to not just the rest of that sentence but the chapter itself. This led me to four words in each of these passages that may indicate the principle difference. In the more familiar and comfortable text, we read “stranger in the land.” Breaking that apart, that is “stranger” and “in the land.” I’ve heard that a stranger is simply a friend you haven’t met yet, and “in the land” implies having crossed the border of a the future state to live within and alongside the Jewish people.

However, the text from this past week states “nations round about you.” That is “nations” and “round about you” - outside your borders. I think you may start to see the distinction in this as I did. When someone intentionally crosses the border of the land and becomes part of the community, we are to welcome them, respect them, and treat them fairly. However, when they stand in opposition we are permitted to treat them as the threat they show themselves to be.

Of course, there was one more part of this text last week that still stands out. It also says you can “buy them [slaves] from among the children of aliens resident among you.” Does this not contradict everything I just said?

Perhaps not. In particular, it uses the word “alien” instead of “stranger”. It also does not say they are “in the land,” but rather “resident among you.” They simply “reside” there, they are not “in” with you.

As an “alien” who has chosen not to come into the land, they have brought the border with them. They may be acting not simply as separate, but aggressively so. They refuse to say to us “you are my people and I will stand with you.” Should there be war, would they fight alongside the Israelites? Would they feed their neighbors if they were hungry? No - they have intentionally set themselves apart and hold themselves separate.

The punishment still seems somewhat harsh - “keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time” - but that’s another story and shall be told another time.

So, what lesson can we learn? The lesson of intent and mutual support. When you live in a place, do not hold yourself separate from the other residents and the people of that land. Support them and care for them as you do your own people. Do not bring borders into the land to maintain an “us versus them” mentality. And for those come to live and work as part of the nation, welcome them. This teaches us to care for others as we wish to be cared for, both when we are the stranger and when we are the nation.