In this short portion, God talks about the covenant:
You stand here all of you, before the Lord your God – your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your wives, the stranger who is in the heart of your camp, from your woodchopper to you water drawer… (Deut 29:9-10)
Unsurprisingly, it is the adult men – householders – who are addressed, and everyone else is listed as they stand in relationship to that householder. Most of the types of people mentioned are spoken of in the second person plural – “your (plural) tribal heads (plural)” etc. But when it comes to the ger (stranger), the singular is used, and the text says “your stranger” (singular) “who (singular) is in the heart of your (singular) camp.”
I can’t find any commentators who have anything to say about this shift to the singular for the ger, but I think it’s significant.
In the Bible, the stranger (ger) usually refers to a person who lacks the rights of an Israelite. Such a person owns no land, and is likely to be the servant of an Israelite master. Usually, the ger is poor, and deserving of protection along with other disadvantaged people like widows and orphans.1
The shift in address means that at first, the Children of Israel are addressed as a collective, who collectively have many leaders, elders, officials, wives and children. But then each individual Israelite householder is addressed directly – hinting that each individual householder has one individual, singular, stranger, who lives “in the center of your camp”, and also one individual water-drawer and wood-chopper who personally draws his water and chops his wood.
The suggestion is that this particular stranger, (along with this particular water-drawer and particular wood-chopper) are well known to the householder. They are not generic types, but specific individuals with whom each householder has a personal relationship.
Each Israelite householder, therefore, is required to recognise, and put a face and a name to his particular stranger. God demands that the individuality and humanity of the stranger be acknowledged.
Elsewhere in the Torah, the stranger is often spoken of as being “at your gates”2 . But here, the stranger is “b’kerev machanecha” – at the heart of your camp. This too seems to reinforce the strong connection between each householder and the particular, individual stranger is connected to.
It seems then that each of us is randomly assigned a stranger. Not someone of our choosing, not someone from the same socio-economic class and level of education as us, but rather a disadvantaged person, a person who does more menial, lower status work than we do, and who occupies a more precarious position in the social and economic order. Our fate it appears, is tied up with theirs, and we were required to care for them in order to survive ourselves. I think that’s what we’re being told here. For if we neglect our duty, and abandon God’s covenant, thinking “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart” (29:18) God will punish us and we will be remembered for bringing doom upon ourselves and our generation.
What we are being asked to observe and appreciate is something very true and important about the nature of community. Whilst each of us can freely undertake to be part of the covenant with God, what we don’t get to exercise any choice about is who else God chooses to allow into the covenant. We sign up to be God’s people. But we don’t get to choose who else is in the club. And if we don’t like them and mistreat them, there will be consequences, because our fate is bound up with theirs. Somewhere there is a particular stranger or wood-chopper or water-drawer who has been cosmically assigned to us and whose destiny – and our role in it – determines our own.
All societies rely on the stranger. There can’t be ‘people like us’ without water-drawers and wood-choppers and newly-arrived people whom we might refer to as strangers or migrants doing jobs that we consider below us.
I feel helpless and clueless in the face of the tremendous movement of human beings that I see on the news. I don’t know how to deal with suffering on such a massive scale. I think however, that I would know where to start if I was allotted a stranger and required to forge a relationship with her or him. I think that over time my stranger would stop being a stranger and would simply become a fellow citizen with all the benefits that citizenship confers.
And I think that’s what the Torah anticipates too, for eventually, later in Torah, and in Jewish history, the ger will become naturalized:
This land you shall divide for yourselves among the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as a heritage for yourselves and for the strangers who reside among you, who have begotten children among you. You shall treat them as Israelite citizens; they shall receive allotments along with you among the tribes of Israel. You shall give the stranger an allotment within the tribe where he resides – declares the Lord God. (Ezekiel 47:21-23)
Surely this is how it works? When we bring the stranger into the heart of our camp, recognise their individuality and humanity, doesn’t that person simply cease to be a stranger and become a citizen?
1 see for example Exodus 22:20-21
2compare Deuteronomy 5:14; 24:14 and 31:12
LBC Rabbinic student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.