We are repeatedly reminded (no fewer than eleven times!) in the Torah that we are to be kind to these three groups of people: the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. The general idea is easy enough to understand: we should not take advantage of those who are defenseless, who have no protective family members. We should go out of our way to avoid leveraging our own blessings against someone who does not share those blessings.
But why these three groups of people, specifically? I think the answer – and explanation – is found, as always, in the text itself.
The first widow in the Torah is Tamar:
Then Judah said to his daughter-in-law Tamar, “Stay as a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”—for he thought, “He too might die like his brothers.” So Tamar went to live in her father’s house.
But Judah does not marry Tamar to Shelah. He is passive-aggressive, and does nothing. In sum: he takes advantage of her relative lack of power. And as even he admits later, Judah wronged Tamar with this abuse of power.
Perhaps, we are supposed to be kind to widows, because Judah was not.
In the Torah, the word for “orphan” does not really mean that at all! The first verse that uses that word is:
And when the money gave out [was lost] in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread, lest we die before your very eyes; for the money is gone!”
Where is “orphan”? It is buried in the mistranslation! The word refers not to children without parents, but to people who had money, and then lost it all, falling into distress and panic as a result! They are people who are consumed with the fact that everything they relied on had been lost!
And what does Joseph do? He takes financial advantage of them and the fact that he possesses all the wealth and all the food. He gradually impoverishes and then eventually enslaves the people of Egypt. He takes advantage of them all.
Perhaps, we are supposed to be kind to those who have suffered loss, because Joseph was not.
The word for “stranger” is ger, and there are two early strangers in the Torah: Cain, who says to G-d, “Today you have made a stranger from all across the face of the earth… anyone who meets me may kill me!” the lesson here is simple enough. If we are to be kind to strangers, then we should do so even if the stranger is like Cain, a man who has done evil. We should even be kind to people who have committed murder! (Though obviously Cain was at least partially reformed as a result of the consequences.)
And then Avram is told that his descendants will be strangers in a land not their own. I think the reason is given elsewhere in the text: that Avram did not demonstrate the empathy that G-d wants in a people who are to champion the poor. The best to learn empathy with strangers is to experience life as a stranger – as when they were slaves in Egypt.
But even Avraham got a taste of this: when he buys the cave in which he wants to bury his deceased wife, Sarah, he calls himself a “stranger.” What happens as a result? The seller of the field takes full advantage of Avraham’s desperation, and greatly overcharges him for the land.
So the lesson is simple enough: we are to be kind to strangers because G-d taught the world to be kind even to Cain, the ultimate stranger. And because we ourselves have tasted what it is like to be outsiders. Being kind to people in that situation is a requirement for anyone who wants to consider themselves one of G-d’s children.
There we have it! A reason, rooted in the text itself, for why this phrase keeps coming up in our commandments. We are to learn from those who were oppressed in Genesis – the stranger, the widow, and those who have suffered loss. We are always to love others, especially when we are better off than they are. It is natural to use our comparative power advantages to pursue our own interests. It is also wrong.
[an @iwe, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]