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Exodus 36

By Rabbi Brian Besser
Rabbi Brian Besser

Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 21:1-24:18)

The Torah purportedly reiterates its mandate to protect the stranger 36 separate times. Variations in negative form (“do not wrong the stranger,” “do not oppress the stranger”) and positive (“you shall love the stranger,” “you shall have one law for the stranger and citizen alike”) appear throughout. Attesting to their importance, two such instances bracket the categorical commandments of the Book of the Covenant in this week’s portion. Righteous conduct toward the stranger—the outcast, the powerless, the destitute—lies at the heart of the Torah’s vision of a just society.

36 is an apocryphal number, contrived rather than actual, like the “613” commandments of Judaism. What does 36 signify? The source text is an offhand Talmudic comment:

Rabbi Eliezer said: “Why does the Torah warn against wronging the stranger in 36 … places? Because [they] may turn to bad.” (Baba Metzia 59b)[1]

Before we address the matter of 36, the statement itself is provocative. At first glance, it seems to feed xenophobia, claiming that foreigners are up to no good. I don’t think that’s what Rabbi Eliezer is saying. He takes as a given that outsiders already live among us. Our dilemma is whether to treat them harshly or compassionately. If we overburden their already difficult lives, we encourage errant behavior on their part. The immigrant landing in alien territory has been uprooted from the social structures that normally reinforce proper conduct in all of us: family, friends, steady employment, religious community, governmental benefits, and so on. Without these supports, temptation increases to “turn to bad.” Therefore, we must interact with newcomers especially sensitively, because their vulnerability already renders them demoralized.

There is another way to read “they may turn to bad.” Maybe “they” refers not to the stranger but to the rest of us. Our yetzer hara[2] includes the universal human tendency, genetically encoded, to react with suspicion against anyone unfamiliar (even as we spontaneously feel affinity with members of our own tribe). When the Rabbis talk about the yetzer hara, they don’t mean our inclinations are “evil” so much as instinctual. Judaism overall demands that we rise above our impulsive reflexes and act with wisdom and forbearance, guided by the ethical principles of our tradition. With regard to strangers, Rabbi Eliezer warns us that we may turn to our yetzer hara. We must override our innate distrust and instead respond from a higher place of lovingkindness.

Returning to the earlier question, why 36? Could it have anything to do with “double chai?”[3] Or maybe it relates to the 360 degrees of the circle, an already commonplace metric in ancient times? Or, what about the lamed-vavniks?[4] According to Jewish lore originating in the Talmud, these 36 righteous souls, scattered among the general populace in every generation, sustain the world. Should just one neglect her or his mission, the world would self-destruct in an instant. Tales typically depict lamed-vavniks disguised as strangers, their identity unknown even to themselves. When Rabbi Eliezer says that the Torah repeats its concern for the stranger 36 times, could he be thinking of them?

Once a certain town suffered prolonged drought. The crops withered; the cattle died; the well dried up. In vain the citizens fasted and prayed. One day a stranger arrived and prayed at the back of the synagogue. The worshippers spurned the vagrant as an intruder. The next day, it started to rain. Overjoyed, they ran to the Rabbi for an explanation. That night, the Rabbi dreamt in a vision: the stranger was a lamed-vavnik! But the visitor had disappeared. Sometime later, another stranger came to town. This time, the citizens welcomed their new guest. “You never know,” they said, “this one may be a lamed-vavnik!”

One message of the lamed-vavnik story is: you never know! The next immigrant admitted to the United States may become the researcher who cures cancer, or the leader who reconciles divisions within American politics. (In any case, social economists consistently maintain that newcomers enrich the commonwealth by contributing more to the economy than they consume in social services.)

There is another way to read the story’s lesson. Maybe the lamed-vavniks who do not know they are lamed-vavniks represent not the stranger but the rest of us. What if we considered ourselves to be among the hidden righteous who sustain the entire world? How might we behave differently toward someone against whom we might feel initial aversion, if we knew that (to paraphrase Maimonides) the fate of the world hung in the balance, and by dignifying her or him we tipped the scales toward universal salvation? This interpretation suggests the following significance to “double chai.” Whenever we treat ourselves and the other person as if either of us could be a lamed-vavnik—which is to say, whenever we recognize the divine image in one another—we ennoble and uplift both our lives (double chai).

While standing on one foot, the sage Hillel famously proclaimed the Torah’s foundational commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Why then does the Torah continue just a few verses later: “you shall love the stranger as yourself?” Because loving your neighbor is relatively easy; the two of you already share familiarity and common ground. What does not come automatically is loving the stranger, whom you are naturally predisposed to fear.

Our perennial primary religious obligation is to widen the circle of our concern, constantly bringing more and more classes of people into the circle of our love—Jews, Muslims, Hindus and non-believers, liberals, conservatives and libertarians, men and women, cisgender and transgender, straight and queer, the affluent, the jobless, the penniless and the homeless, citizens, card-carrying immigrants and undocumented immigrants, Americans, Norwegians and Haitians, and on and on—until “love your neighbor as yourself” one day fills all 360 degrees of the circle and embraces all of humanity.

[1] סורו רע literally translates to “their character is bad,” but I’m playfully associating the phrase with סור מרע, “turn from bad [and do good].” (Psalm 34:15)

[2] so called “evil inclination”

[3] חי (chai), the Hebrew word for “life,” is numerically equivalent to 18.

[4] The letters lamed and vav together are numerically equivalent to 36.


Brian Besser, ordained at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010, serves Congregation Beth Shalom in Bloomington, Indiana.

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