Foreign but Equal
The first few verses of our parasha describe the descent of the Jews into Egyptian slavery and torture. The three distinct phases are apparent in the prophecy to Avraham: “Your offspring will be foreigners in a land not theirs, and they will enslave them and oppress them.” (Ber. 15: 13)
First, the Jews were subjected to a labor tax. As aliens of foreign origin, they were made to pay a high price for the very air they breathed. But when these and similar burdensome laws directed at the foreigners did not achieve their objective, the Jews were declared to be slaves. Stripped of their rights, the entire Egyptian populace had authority over them. This soon morphed into an embittered torture, in which they endured daily wanton abuse intended to crush their strength. Thus, all three phases — foreigners, enslavement, and oppression — which were foretold to Avraham, were realized.
The beginning, the root, of the unspeakable abuse was gerut — treating a foreigner, a stranger, as if he has no rights. This mistreatment is emblazed in our national memory and finds unusual emphasis in the Torah’s laws. No less than twenty-four times, whenever the Torah establishes rights concerning persons and things, the stranger is placed under the special protection of the law. We are cautioned multiple times to treat the stranger and the convert with equal or greater respect, and in so doing, to remember our experience as foreigners in Egypt. (E.g. Vayikra 19:34; Shemot 22:20)
The degree of justice in a country, writes Rav Hirsch, is measured not by the rights accorded to the native-born, the rich, and the well-connected, but by the justice meted out to the unprotected stranger. This is a basic characteristic of Jewish Law: the homeland does not grant human rights, rather human rights grant the homeland. There is no distinction between citizen’s rights and human rights. Rather, anyone who has accepted upon himself the moral laws of humanity — the seven Noahide laws — could claim the right to live in the Land of Israel.
When setting forth this principle, the Torah reminds us, recall, you were once foreigners in Egypt. We are to recall how that first injustice — disparate treatment of foreigners — quickly burgeoned into full blown slavery and cruel affliction, and to guard ourselves and our society against such dangerous missteps.
In Rav Hirsch’s view, this principle of equal treatment of foreigners extended even to situations in which the foreigners were less than exemplary citizens. In the wake of the pogroms in Russia, hundreds of Polish and Russian refugees arrived in Frankfurt, some of whom became involved in questionable activities. The Kehilla board wanted to have them expelled from the city for fear that they would arouse antagonism against the Jewish community as a whole. Rav Hirsch would not hear of it. “First throw the wealthy criminals out of the city. Only afterwards can you do the same to the poor ones.”
- Sources: Commentary, Shemot 1:14