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Two of the many things discussed in this week’s Torah portion of Tetzaveh are the olive oil that was used in the Mishkan for various functions like for lighting the menorah and meal-offerings, and the incense that was burned on the Golden Alter right outside the Holy of Holies in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash.
Rabbeinu Bachye, in his introduction to the Torah portion, quotes a pasuk in Mishley (27:9), “Oil and incense make the heart rejoice, and the sweetness of his friendship more than one’s own counsel.” King Shlomo warns us in this pasuk to be merciful to strangers (or converts) who are exiled from his place and from the land in which he was born. The Torah warns about how to treat this person in many places, to not mistreat him verbally or monetarily, as it says, “And you shall not mistreat a stranger” (Shemos 22:20), and it writes, “And you shall not oppress a stranger” (Shemos 23:9), and it also writes, “for you know the feelings of the stranger” (Shemos 23:9). Therefore Shlomo came and added and newly conceived here that a person is obligated to treat another person who was exiled and moved from place to place in two ways: (1) He should feed him, and (2) He should smile at him. This pasuk is connected to the previous pasuk in Mishlei that says, “As a bird wandering from its nest, so is a man wandering from his place.” It equates a person who has left his birthplace to a bird who has left his nest, his origin, those who are the source of his birth. Right next to that verse it then immediately says “oil and incense,” which is a nickname for all food. Anything which is fried with oil and spices [creates an incense of] smoke that rises from the food being cooked. The pasuk informs us with this that a person is obligated to make the heart of a man who is wandering happy by feeding him which is the “oil and incense,” for it “make the heart rejoice”. One also has to have a smile which in the pasuk refers to as “the sweetness of his friendship;” that one should sweeten his words and smile at the stranger. For besides the fact that he needs “oil and incense he also needs “the sweetness of his friendship” through smiling and talking to him gently.The pasuk concludes, “more than one’s own counsel,” meaning this sweetness and smile should come from one’s own mind, showing true love and care, and not flattery, because the stranger will show you sweetness in his lips, more than you give him. So to Chaza”l say in Kesubos 111b, “Better is to show your white teeth (smile) to your friend then offering him milk, as it says ‘and the whiteness of teeth more than milk’ (Breishis 49:12)…” The prophet also mentioned, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry” (Yeshayahu 58:7), this refers to “oil and incense,” he then mentions, “And you draw out your soul to the hungry” (Yeshayahu 58:10), which refers to “the sweetness of his friendship”. (Click here for Hebrew Text.)
Earlier in the Torah portion of Mishpatim, where it discusses not mistreating a stranger (convert) as quoted earlier, Rabbeinu Bachye writes on 22:20, “one should not mistreat a stranger (convert) with hurtful words and should not oppress them by stealing their money. In many places in the Torah it writes, and Hashem warns us about, a stranger (convert) for a stranger (convert) finds himself alone in a foreign land and that is why he is called a ger (stranger), from the word gargir, (seed) which is found by itself at the top of a branch of a tree, feeling desolate and weak. Therefore Hashem said: ‘Don’t think he won’t find someone to fight his fight, for I will fight for him, and will take revenge for him being taken advantage of. This is why the pasuk gives a reason that ‘You know the soul of a stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’ It does not say ‘you know the stranger” rather it says ‘you know the soul of the stranger,’ meaning [Hashem is telling the Jews] ‘you know that every stranger has a feeling of being a lowly soul, and he has no one to lift up his eyes towards, except for Me, and therefore I will be merciful on him just as I was merciful to you when you were strangers in Egypt.’ Mentioned with them are the orphans and widows, because all of them have weaker strength, and people take advantage and cause them suffering, their tears are common, for the gates of tears never close, therefore people have to be very careful to be good and kind to them with their body and money, and so to the prophet mentions, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry” (Yeshayahu 58:7), and also writes, “And you draw out your soul to the hungry” (Yeshayahu 58:10). If you are able to give him bread, give it, and if not then at least strengthen his soul with some kind words.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
The Torah goes out of its way to not hurt a stranger (convert), even giving reasons for why not to do so. This logically leads us to believe that not only do we have a responsibility not to hurt them, but we must also be sensitive to their needs; feeding them, taking care of them, and certainly talking to them calmly, softly, and with a sincere smile, as Rabbeinu Bachye logically points out. But if this is so, why did King Shlomo feel a need to reemphasize how to properly treat a stranger (convert,) and why did Rabbeinu Bachye call it a ‘new insight’ if it is a logical extension of the verses in the Torah? Of course in order to not make a stranger (convert) feel bad you have to talk to him nicely and make him feel at home by giving him a scrumptious meal, room, and board if needed! On the contrary, we are descendants of Avraham Avinu, who was an expert at having guests who were total strangers, many of whom eventually converted to monotheism. It is in our genetic makeup to be merciful and act with kindness; certainly we should at least strive to emulate him. So why does this concept of taking care of strangers and not mistreating them need to be emphasized so much, at such length, over and over again?!
We must say that even though the attribute of mercy and kindness are two of the signs that we are Jews, coming from the line of Avraham Avinu, still in all it is in fact very difficult to honestly deal with, and give selflessly to, a complete stranger and foreigner, even if he or she has joined our faith. There is a cognitive dissonance, that on the one hand it is within our genetic makeup to emulate Hashem and be a selfless giver and doer of kindness just as our forefather Avraham was. Yet it is also natural for a person to recoil and have a feeling of distance, and to create a wall of separation from someone who you don’t personally know and have not come to feel comfortable with, someone who has not been raised the same way as you have, or even in the same town that you have lived in your whole life. Indeed, because they are different you might come to rationalize treating them differently, and even take advantage of them. At the very least if you outwardly show that you are trying to be nice, you don’t really mean it, you put on a show. But they can see right through it, and Hashem sees their pain and tears. For this reason Hashem emphasizes and reemphasizes how important it is, and gives us initiatives of why, we should feel it is important to not mistreat a stranger. It is because it is so easy to fall into the trap of the inner struggle within us, and not sincerely give the way we are supposed to, that King Shlomo spelled out as clearly as possible how to positively treat the strangers that sojourn among us. It brings to light with a new clarity the altruistic feeling of care and compassion we should truly feel and act upon.
May this attitude make an impression on our relationship between us and our fellow person, who deserve it, whoever it might be!