Jewish teaching makes it clear in the Torah and later writings that we have a special obligation to take care of the weakest members of society, referred to in Torah as “the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.” Thus in a sense the Torah recognizes that not all people are equal in opportunity or economic terms. Some, because of their circumstances, need more care and attention from others.
Yet this week’s Torah portion also makes it clear that in God’s eyes all of us are equal. All adult Israelites are to give a half-shekel “as a portion to YHVH.” (Ex 30:13) No distinction is made here among different citizens: all are equal in being part of a holy society.
This message is especially timely because this Shabbat has been designated “Refugee Shabbat” by HIAS. Our congregation along with nearly 200 others is dedicating our Shabbat service to highlighting our shared Jewish support of refugees and asylum seekers. Because of our own circumstances we are able to offer help to those in need—always recognizing that all of us are equally holy in God’s eyes.
Among the readings HIAS prepared for Refugee Shabbat includes an adaption of the familiar Aleinu prayer and a reminder that “You shall not wrong nor oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20):
“Aleinu: it was on us. It was on us from the moment our ancestors were first forced to leave home, charged with transforming their wandering into a blessing for all people. As our people became a refugee people, we took on the sacred responsibility to see our story as bound up with the stories of all who continue to wander… Aleinu: it will always be on us to remember that there is no us and there is no them, there are only God’s children.”