In the summer after the tragedy of September 11th, my family visited Stone Mountain Geogia for the incredible laser show. I remember three songs from that show – one was Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind”, the second was The Charlie Daniels Band’s “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and the last was Lee Greenwood, “Proud To Be An American.”
A most incredible thing happened during “Proud To Be An American.” The words of the chorus read, “I’m proud to be an American where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died to give that right to me. I’ll gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today. Cause there ain’t no doubt, I love this land, God bless the USA.” At the moment that the song played “stand up next to you,” the entire lawn of several thousand people stood up.
I certainly understand this within the context of September 11th. As Jews, we often pride ourselves in the retelling of the Passover story. It reminds us our history in Egypt, going from slavery to freedom. It should remind us, like Lee Greenwood’s song, of our appreciation of the freedom with which we are all blessed. Certainly patriotism has its place!
It occurred to me during a recent study of the book of Deuteronomy 24, that patriotism is not the only response to freedom, and might not even be the response scripture urges. The book of Deuteronomy, particularly at the end, consists of instructions as to the sort of society which is to be established in the Land of Israel after it conquest. In Deuteronomy 24:17-22 we read:
“17You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. 18Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.
19When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow—in order that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings.
20When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. 21When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. 22Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.”
This passage defines certain modes of behavior toward three types of people: the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. In my opinion, the “stranger, widow, and orphan” are the means which by the Bible refers to people who lack power and are poor.
The stranger is the person not “from here.” He or she is the new immigrant in our country. Twice in this passage, we are told to treat the stranger kindly and to grant rights to the stranger because we had been strangers in the land of Egypt. This Biblical command is found more in the five books of Moses than any other command including the commands to love God and love one’s fellow human being. In terms of sheer numbers, the commandment to treat the stranger equitably and with kindness could be seen as the most important commandment in the Torah (Pentateuch).
It is human nature for us not to be welcoming to strangers. All protestations to the contrary, we gravitate towards our “in groups.” Outsiders look different, have different customs, and may even speak different languages or, heaven forbid, speak our native language with accents. All the more so, the Torah demands their proper treatment over and over again.
Consequently, the idea that we would mistreat the stranger or make life so difficult for the stranger that we would force him or her to return to their native land through some process of “self-deportation” is absolutely against Biblical ethics. In addition, the idea that we would forcibly deport the child of an immigrant, who has lived almost his whole life in the United States but was not born here, is also against Biblical ethics. In addition to being a very cruel act to children, it is an act which deprives our country of much needed intellectual and social capital.
I also note that in verse 17 it says, “You should not take a widow’s garment in pawn.” When I first read that I asked myself, “Why would this be so?” The answer, it seems to me, is that when one loans money to a widow and takes collateral from her, one should realize that there is a very real chance that this debt will not be repaid. To me, the Bible is foreshadowing what today we know as predatory lending – which is the practice that banks would loan money at low interest teaser rates to people that have very little chance to repay loans, later hiking the rates after missed payments, or, in many causes, without cause or warning, repossessing such a person’s home. This is clearly an abusive financial practice.
What about the widow who really needs help? The answer is given in this passage as well. The passage talks about the charitable act of leaving olives and grapes for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow: This is the Torah’s way of teaching us that we have an obligation to make sure that there is a social service safety net that protects people who are poor.
So if the stranger, the orphan and the widow represent poor people, it is clear that Deuteronomy is telling us three things. First, such people must have the same legal rights that everyone else has. Second, such people should not be the victims of the abuse of predatory lending. Third, we should not be greedy, but rather should be charitable towards the poor. Indeed, if we are blessed with freedom and with material goods, let us always remember that God has been our partner in achieving what we have.
The bottom line here is that true freedom not only includes patriotism, but also consists of using that freedom to establish a society based upon equal rights for all, citizen and immigrant, economic justice and compassion and charity.
Should we forget this basic premise, we should remember that once we were strangers in Egypt and that once we were poor. Once, God reached out to rescue us from slavery, indignity and poverty. In today’s world, should not we also extend our outstretched hand to our brothers and sisters, all of whom are created in God’s image, who have arrived in this country from lands near and far as well as those who need help because they are homeless and hungry?”
Rabbi Fred Guttman serves Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, N.C.