Mishpatim: We are all strangers



In Mishpatim, twice God tells the Israelites not to oppress a stranger because they were strangers in the Egypt. (22:20 and 23:9). This is central to Jewish identity. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “To be a Jew is to be a stranger.”  Rabbi Shai Held writes that, “since you know what it feels like to be a stranger, you must never abuse or mistreat the stranger.” 

Indeed, the Israelites experience as strangers in Egypt and throughout the diaspora provides the imperative that we not only support the strangers in our midst but stand in solidarity. Rabbi Held continues, “Empathy must animate and intensify your commitment to the dignity and well being of the weak and vulnerable. And God holds you accountable to this obligation”

Chopped Garnet yam

Chopped Garnet yam

R. Sacks explains a teaching of Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar (Ohr ha-Hayyim) “Therefore they are commanded not to feel superior to the ger [stranger], but instead to remember the degradation their ancestors experienced in Egypt. As such, it becomes a command of humility in the face of strangers.”

Some of the strangers in our midst today are the immigrants who make up 13 percent of our nation (and 16 percent of the workforce). Over 11 million are undocumented people, including more than four million children and teenagers.  They are often pawns of our political and economic systems. One child described his illegal status as like an “invisible prison.”

Our food system is wholly dependent on immigrants–both documented and undocumented–and would collapse without them. Indeed, much of what keeps our food fast and cheap is due to the exploitation of workers. The fast food industry has approximately two million immigrant workers. In agriculture, at least 53 percent are undocumented.   And, “without secure legal status, immigrants on farms have limited rights and trouble accessing resources that could protect them from abusive practices and appallingly low wages.

Kale in my garden

Kale in my garden

Due to the decline in unions and the consolidation of meat processors (four handle about half of all meat processing in the US), the meatpacking industry has become a hotbed of worker exploitation and abuse. As Tom Philpott noted, “By the ’90s, meatpacking had become such an awful job that native-born Americans abandoned the industry as quickly as they could. Undocumented workers from Mexico and points south, fleeing agrarian decline in those regions, filled the void.”

And while the immigrants who plant, harvest, slaughter and serve us food are stuck in the crossfire of political battles, politicians across the spectrum stand in solidarity with them.  Recently, President Obama spoke about fixing our immigration system and asked, “Are we a nation that tolerates the hypocrisy of a system where workers who pick our fruit and make our beds never have a chance to get right with the law? Or are we a nation that gives them a chance to make amends, take responsibility, and give their kids a better future? Are we a nation that accepts the cruelty of ripping children from their parents’ arms? Or are we a nation that values families, and works together to keep them together?”

Mike Huckabee the former Republican governor of Arkansas, said, “It hardly seems Americans should truly feel threatened by people who pluck chickens, pick tomatoes, make beds, wash dishes or mow lawns.”

Abe and Rose Shulman

Abe and Rose Shulman

My great grandparents, Rose and Abe Shulman, left the Ukraine with two of their children to immigrate to the United States in the early 20th century. Their family grew to five children, and he worked as a tailor. They were quite poor, but safe from the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Fast forward a few generations to last winter, when I attended a Shulman family reunion with relatives coming from towns and cities across the country, such as Mobile, AL, Burlington, VT, New York, Seattle, Fort Worth.  Many of the Shulman’s are now part of the country’s “elite”–doctors, lawyers, judges, corporate executives. They are no longer perceived as “strangers” in the United States. But, as Rabbi Sacks concludes, “Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.

Raw Cannellini beans

Raw Cannellini beans

Mishpatim Vegetables and Beans

5 carrots sliced into rounds
1 large yellow onion
3-5 cloves garlic, minced
1.5 cups Great Northern Beans
1 large handful of kale, chopped
1 garnet yam, chopped
2.5 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

1. If the beans are dry, soak and then boil (I use a pressure cooker which makes things quite easy).

2. Add 1 tbsp olive oil, saute onion until soft. Add chopped carrots and yam and cook over low heat until soft and nearly carmelized, about 30 minutes. You might have to add water to prevent drying and burning. Add salt and pepper to taste.

The two dishes folded together

The two dishes folded together

3. In a separate pan, pour 1 tbsp olive oil and chopped garlic. Cook for a couple of minutes on low heat to prevent burning, and then add kale. Cook until kale is nearly fully wilted and then add beans. Cook for another minute or so. Add salt and pepper to taste.

4. On a platter, arrange the two dishes in concentric circles for presentation to represent the “stranger.” Then, fold all of the ingredients together to show that there is no stranger: the dish is combined as one. I served with polenta but rice, pasta or another grain would also be delicious.



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