We Were Once Strangers in a Strange Land
A young immigrant finds himself quickly rising up the political ladder in the most prosperous country in the world. While his novel economic policies, intellect, and resourcefulness make him a popular figure, many in the country still view the foreigner as just that, a foreigner.
Now, unlike scores of his co-workers, he did not come to the country out of economic opportunity or even to avoid the growing famine in his home country. Rather, his serendipitous arrival in the country was actually against his will.
Born into a tight knit tribe with strict rules governing interpersonal relationships, our young immigrant found himself in an extremely dire situation after he overstepped his boundaries and upset some of the older clansmen. Scarcely avoiding being killed in an ambush set up by his own family, he was eventually sold to a gang that runs an international slave trade network.
One thing led to another and the immigrant found himself working in a servant-like job in the house of a wealthy couple. Of course, given his status as a lowly immigrant and working in a job that is left for the dregs of society, he was given very little respect and power in both the social and political sphere.
It should come as no surprise then, that when our immigrant was false accused of sexual assault there would be no fair trial, nor would anyone come to his defense. On the contrary, the ubiquitous sentiment regarding immigrants was that they are criminal and nefarious, and this accusation perfectly fit the stereotype.
As an innocent man he served his time in prison, but still did not give up hope. It would eventually be a mixture of this hope, his work ethic, intellect, and a bit of luck that would catapult him into the political arena upon his release. All seemed good, at least for now.
By now you have figured out that this is the story of Joseph, the prototypical story.
This story is very much the Jewish story (as well as others). A story of a people, banished from their home, seeking refuge in other countries, and subsequently undergoing difficult trials in order to succeed. And while we, as a people, usually do succeed in whichever foreign country we land, historically we have never lived “happily ever after.”
Even with our immigrant protagonist eventually becoming the second ranked political officer in the country, it would only be shortly after his death that his family would start to be heavily persecuted. It started slowly, of course, with veiled attacks about how these people are hurting the culture and economy via their iconoclastic ways and traditions. Then came the segregation and racist laws, and finally these people became of a different class, one of slaves and servants. It would take a great and near miraculous act to free this people from their servitude.
We know from Jewish literature that we must be nice to the immigrant and there seems to be a dual reason for this imperative. The first, one of the fundamentals of ethical monotheism, is the idea that we must strive to imitate god (Imitatio Dei). God is said to be all good so we, as humans, must be constantly striving for goodness.
The other reason, however, comes from personal experience and empathy. As a people we know what it is like to be the immigrant, the minority, and the stranger. We understand that it is human nature to constantly cast down the “other” for no other reason than their “otherness.” We also know that when we, the minority, are given a chance, no matter how small, we do everything in our power to capitalize on that opportunity in order to not only bolster ourselves and our communities, but also the world.
It is not by chance that the Torah gives so much space to the story of Joseph, our immigrant from the story above. In their composition of the Torah, our ancestors attempted to encapsulate the experience of a nation in the story of an individual. In this light the story of Joseph, along with most of the other biblical stories, is not meant to represent a literal history or a historical figure - rather it is an extended metaphor for our nation meant to reinforce our ideals.
A myriad of statements throughout the Talmud attest to the fact that studying is important but action is paramount. In other words, in the Jewish weltanschauung our study of Torah should not be viewed as an end in itself but rather as a means to inspire and dictate action. In a time where many of the same themes as the Joseph story are popping up within our society, we have a fundamental choice to make: do we listen to the Torah by protecting and welcoming the immigrant, or do we act like the Egyptians?
And, before we answer, it’s worth noting that in multiple places the Bible warns us to not descend back to Egypt.
Moshe Daniel Levine regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
We were once strangers in a strange land, but what does Judaism have to say about the U.S.'s immigration policies? Is the recent Arizona law in keeping with Jewish views?
See answers from Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis here.
If you have a question about Jewish values that you would like to ask rabbis from multiple denominations, click here to enter your question. We will ask rabbis on our panel for answers and post them. You can also search our repository of over 800 questions and answers about Jewish values.
For more great Jewish content, please subscribe in the right-hand column. Once you confirm your subscription, you'll get an email whenever new content is published to the Jewish Values Online blog.