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Shemot 22:20-22 are consecutive verses banning ona’ahagainst specific persons. 

The ger – you (singular) must not oppress him and you must not torment him. 

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Every widow and orphan you must not oppress. 

For if you oppress, yes oppress him . . . 

When he cries, yes cries to Me 

I will hear, yes hear, his cry. 

 

Verse 20 forbids tormenting a ger, while verse 21 forbids oppressing a widow or orphan, and verse 22 forbids tormenting a (male singular) pronoun. Verses 20 and 22 are addressed to a singular you; verse 21 to a plural you. Verse 20 also forbids the oppression of a ger.        

There are fundamentally three possible approaches to these differences: 

  1. a) they are random variations for literary interest
  2. b) each formulation is substantively different, and each nuance apples to both the ger and the widow/orphan.

c)  each formulation is substantively different, and each applies specifically to the class of people mentioned in its own verse. 

Ibn Ezra’s two commentaries on Chumash, put together, offer an overall perspective.  In the Short Commentary, he tells us that the ger – defined as a resident alien, not as a convert – is utterly vulnerable because he has no family base. Every citizen has the capacity to oppress him financially, or in his home, or to torment him by means of perjured testimony.  In the Long Commentary, he notes that the widow and orphan are the domestic equivalent of gerim.  Then he adds: “After it uses the plural to forbid oppression, it switches to the singular, because anyone who sees a person oppressing the orphan and widow without helping them, is also considered an oppressor”. 

We can unpack Ibn Ezra as follows.  

Legal systems – even Divinely ordained legal systems – are subject to manipulation by people with power and connections.  

Therefore, even those participating in such a system have the obligation to be upstanders, not bystanders.  A system can create justice only for those wholly inside it; how those inside it relate to others will inevitably be a question of character, not of rules. 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch addresses the same textual issues in a subtly but crucially different way. 

“According to this it appears, that the Torah first commands the state, lest it be cruel to the ger. The state must not practice oppression toward the ger. Because of his being a ger – do not impose upon additional obligations, or yield him fewer privileges than the citizen, and do not torment him. Do not limit him in any way with regard to his doing work or making a living.  From Bamidbar 22:25 and Melakhim Bet 6:32 we learn that the term “torment” refers primarily to a limitation of place, an imposition of pressure. Thus the prohibition is “Don’t impose pressure on him and don’t limit him”. 

“You (plural) do not oppress them” – In most states, aliens are distinguished for worse treatment, and their rights are curtailed on the basis of the law.  Therefore the Torah commanded the state, as a unified entity, when in the previous verse it forbade you (singular) from oppressing the ger.  On the other hand, it is difficult to find a system of laws that permits curtailing widows and orphans. However, in relationships among the members of a society, such people, who lack representatives, support, and mentors – are given over to curtailing and demeaning.  Therefore the Torah turns to the society first and says: “You (plural) must not oppress them” – you must not take advantage of their weakness to do evil to them; you (plural) must not cause them to feel the suffering of their situation”. 

For Rav Hirsch, in contrast to Ibn Ezra, the moral risk posed by having a legal system cover noncitizens is not that individuals will oppress the ger – rather, it is that the system itself will become corrupted in practice, even if its origin is Divine. 

There are two ways to address Rav Hirsch’s concern. 

The first is to ensure that the legal system claims no power over anyone but full citizens, or alternatively, by granting full citizenship to anyone who falls within its jurisdiction.  Unfortunately or otherwise, neither of these has proven practical in history. They lead to efforts at ethnic cleansing on the one hand, and forced conversion in the other, and yield horrific immorality and cruelty with no net gain. 

The second way is to be constantly alert to, and suspicious of, claims that the only way to raise up citizens is to lower non-citizens. In a sense, it means making such discrimination a constitutional matter, rather than one that can be overridden by legislative or executive whim. 

None of this means that societies must allow unlimited numbers of non-citizens to immigrate; or that a society does not have the right and need to defend itself against non-citizens who reject the fundamental mores and basis of the state.  The path from moral principle to moral policy is rarely straightforward. But the path from lack of moral principle to immoral policy often is straightforward.    

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Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, a musmach of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) is dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, which develops creative, rigorous, and humane halachic scholars and scholarship. Much of his popular and academic writing is archived at www.torahleadership.org.
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