On Obama Quoting the Book of Exodus: 'We shall not oppress a stranger'


Obama addressing nation

Credit: Creative Commons/CreoFire

A powerful moment in President Obama’s immigration reform speech came when, after telling the emotional story of a young immigrant, he quoted a verse from the Book of Exodus to bookend his case for empathy.
This was not only a significant moment in Obama’s speech, but a significant moment in the panoply of presidential speeches. For while presidents sometimes allude to biblical texts or their ethical principles, it’s rare for verses to actually be quoted in full. This, of course, predictably set FOX & Friends into a fiery rage, a rage which has placed Obama’s quotation into sharper focus.
Since this is a fascinating verse I regularly teach to Jewish day school students in the original Hebrew, I thought it would be instructive to a) briefly examine the actual verse, b) examine Obama embedding this verse into the immigration reform debate, and c) examine the contemporary reality of the place and people to whom the verse was originally directed: Jews entering the Land of Israel.
Obama’s Quoting of Exodus 23:9 – Don’t oppress the “stranger”
Below is the moment, after telling the story of Astrid Silva, in which Obama invokes the Book of Exodus:

Scripture tells us, “We shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too.”
My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forbearers were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like or what our last names are, or how we worship.

Now, forget for a moment some of the historical inaccuracies and the glossing over of American atrocities, which could be a topic in its own right. Instead, I want to focus on the verse Obama quotes by examining its context and actual meaning.
In the Book of Exodus, the Israelites are camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, having just been rescued from their 400 years of enslavement in Egypt. Soon, they will break camp and march toward the Land of Israel, their future home. Before this happens, though, Moses must enjoin upon the Israelites those laws they must keep upon arriving in Israel.
And so we get this (Hebrew and my translation):

גֵר לֹא תִלְחָץ וְאַתֶּם יְדַעְתֶּם אֶת נֶפֶשׁ הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מצרים

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the “soul” of the stranger, since you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.

This is a powerful commandment, founded upon empathy, directing those Israelites who take the Land of Israel to not oppress the “stranger” residing alongside them, particularly since they know a thing or two about oppression.
There are two words here the rabbis debated more than any other. The first, “stranger,” came to be understood either as converts living amongst the Israelites or minorities from outside nations who dwelled amongst the majority.
The second word, “soul,” prompted the rabbis to ask, “What does it mean to know someone’s soul, or נפש?” Interestingly, Obama’s translation, which changes to word “soul” to “heart,” is close to the interpretation of Rashi, a great rabbinic mind from the 11th century. To Rashi, knowing someone’s “soul” in this context means understanding how difficult it is for someone, both emotionally and physically, to live under crushing oppression.
Obama embedding Exodus into the immigration reform debate
While some might argue that Obama cast too broad a net after quoting Exodus 23:9, there is no question that the ethical concept contained in the verse – empathy for the “stranger” – is both applicable and essential to the broad-based championing of immigration reform.
Empathy for the “other” stands at the heart of what is needed in this country, particularly since many American citizens are descended from immigrants and/or those who were once oppressed.
The question worth asking, in a country where the separation of church and state should be ironclad, is whether Obama was right to quote a verse from the Hebrew bible.
Regardless of that question’s answer, one thing is certain: its evocation not only evokes an ethical principle, but the people and place to which this principle originally applied. It evokes a place the Obama administration, and America, has for some time considered a close ally and critical foreign policy investment. It is also a place Obama has repeatedly critiqued for the oppression of those “strangers” living there.
The intensifying oppression of Palestinians by Israel
Israel’s democracy is crumbling this very moment under the weight of societal racism and institutional oppression. If you’re not following Israel right now, you might be shocked by everything I’m about to relate, all of which has transpired in the last two weeks alone.
After increased violence and the criminal murder of innocents on both sides, including a brutal terrorist attack at a Jerusalem synagogue, extremists in Israel have begun imploring businesses not to employ Arab citizens. Recently, video of a planned “demonstration” went viral where Israeli-Jews filled up grocery carts, brought them to the cashier, and asked, “Do you employ Arabs?” then abandoning them and leaving when the answer was “Yes.”
Signs have popped up around Jerusalem which read, “Jews only employ Jews,” a few businesses have been seen posting signs that they don’t hire Palestinians, and even the mayor of Ashkelon, a city of 125,000 citizens, decreed that Arab citizens could no longer work in the city’s schools.
While some Israelis are expressing shock and horror by such developments, they stand in the minority and against the incitement and racism being furthered by Israel’s leaders.
Consider this: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is currently pushing a “Jewish nation-state bill” which only guarantees democratic rights for Jews. This during a time in which Netanyahu is also championing the illegal destruction of family homes belonging to Palestinian terrorists (but not similar Jewish criminals). Jerusalem’s mayor is even suggesting that Palestinian family members, no matter how distant, should lose their Israeli citizenship as well.
All of this, of course, is set against the larger backdrop of Israel’s assaults on Gaza and its decades-old military occupation of the West Bank, both of which have caused intense suffering and denied Palestinians their basic human and civil rights.
Defenders of everything above will chant, “This is what war looks like.” However, one cannot look upon the extremist gangs which currently roam Jerusalem’s streets chanting “Death to Arabs” while looking for Palestinian citizens to assault and claim that this is the appearance of war.
Instead, it is a glimpse into what oppression of the “stranger” for decades has done to Israeli society, what it has done to the collective empathy of a people, my people, who know a thing or two about being oppressed.
“You shall not oppress a stranger.” Obama evoked these words as a call for empathy, a call to end the dehumanizing oppression of immigrants in this country. Words which echo from ancient Israel, a country where those echoes are getting fainter by the day.


What Do You Buy For the Children
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

11 thoughts on “On Obama Quoting the Book of Exodus: 'We shall not oppress a stranger'

    • .
      Yes, it really is difficult for Palestinians and Israelis to tell from where the next attack will come, particularly with the incitement of leaders continuing like a drum beat.
      For Palestinians, this is just as acute, if not moreso. Will it be a settler running them over? A mob of citizens stabbing them? Police shooting them dead?
      It is a great challenge indeed, for both Palestinians and Jewish Israelis. Netanyahu and Abbas have as much responsibility as anyone.

      • All of what you say is true. But, as typically is the case with you, you conveniently leave out certain facts Specifically, the cheering and words of praise by Hamas and their supporters in Gaza, for hacking to death Jews praying in a synagogue, will (sadly) encourage others to engage in similar acts in the future.
        You rightly condemn Netanyahu, the mayor of Ashkelon, and the horrifying extremists who chant”death to Arabs” and who post signs about not employing Arabs. But it is painfully obvious that your omission of the horrifying cheerleading and celebrations that occurred following the hacking to death of Jews praying in synagogue — i.e., a clear part of the picture of what is going on in that region right now — was deliberate. And it is a shondah.

  1. All the previous comments were about Israel/Palestine situation. Mine, instead, will be about the main thrust of David’s article — President Obama’s speech on immigration.
    David is full of praise for this speech and rightfully so: our president has always been a first-rate speechifier. But it is unfortunate that in this area (like so many others: presidential transparency, treatment of whistle-blowers, rights of labor, NSA spying, etc.), his words contradict his actions so sharply.
    With regard to Obama’s treatment of undocumented workers, according to Mother Jones, “Fiscal years 2009-12 saw an average of about 396,000.” This 396,000 represents the number of “illegal aliens” deported annually from the United States, and represents the highest total ever reported. This is demonstrated tellingly in Mother Jones’ accompanying graph. (Obama’s predecessor, GW Bush, is second in the deportation derby.)
    If I had my choice, I would rather that President Obama said nothing, but acted as his spoken words indicate he would act. The way that it actually is, his “bully pulpit” becomes the ballast of a windbag.

    • I have no problem deporting adults who arrive illegally or over stay this visa. It’s the deportation of children who arrive alone that I worry about, They are fleeing death in the home country.

    • I agree with every point that you have made here, Mr. Glickman, word for word, line by line. For me, the problem with Obama is that nearly everything that he has said or done is too little too late.
      As a lame duck, his time for making a significant difference in a two-term presidency has just about run out — particularly when you consider the disaster of the recent elections that have given the Republicans (and their wealthy backers) carte blanche for the next two years. God help us.
      And God (Yahweh) help Israel. I do not approve of the present government and the horrors that they have inflicted upon the Palestinian people and continue to believe that they have every right to their own state and to control their own destiny apart from Israel, but I want to see Israel survive and prosper — for many reasons — not the least of which is that they have more than earned their status as an independent state and because my Christian (RC) roots are from them.

  2. Thank you, Mr. Harris-Gershon for sharing your teaching expertise with us in this posting.
    I have to wonder if Pres. Obama sought the advice of a Rabbi or Hebrew teacher before he
    included the Exodus 23:9 quote in his speech.
    Regardless, I am glad that you chose to do so. It does make a decided difference to hear the translation from a Jewish believer who is knowledgeable about Hebrew Scripture. Your exegesis made it all come together for me.
    I facilitated a Scripture study in our RCC parish for about 14 years in the 80s and 90s. The class was composed of 20-25 pre-Vatican II women. Like so many Catholic Christian people of that time, we were hungry to know about Scripture. It was a defining moment in our lives.
    Upon occasion, we had the wonderful experience of having a professor of Hebrew Scripture from our local Franciscan College, Siena, address us. We were especially interested in learning more about the Hebrew prophets – particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah. The professor did a masterful job making his teaching one of the big highlights of our long study.
    Peace! Shalom!.

  3. Terrible… Illegitimate foreigners are entering the United States and stealing, murdering, raping, and dealing drugs. They are being caught, tried, convicted, and then released on the streets by Obama. Certainly, you should be kind to any legal immigrant, but those that are committing crimes should be jailed and then returned to their home country. I am more concerned about these atrocities that are occurring today as Obama ignores the law than any violation of the separation church and state. Clearly, quoting scripture is not the establishment of a religion.

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