”And you shall command the people of Israel, that they bring you pure beaten oil olive for the light, for the lamp to burn always.” Exodus 27:20
Olive oil has always been an important substance in this part of the world, providing light, and also providing sensuous pleasure to skin dried out by the desert climate. Perhaps that’s why King Solomon said “Oil and incense rejoice the heart; so does the sweetness of a man’s friend by hearty counsel (Proverbs 27:9).”
Rebbeinu Bachya brings a fascinating teaching on this verse: he says that King Solomon is cautioning us to be compassionate to the stranger who has been exiled from his land, from his birthplace. The Torah itself cautions in many places not to oppress the stranger, neither with words or financially, do not oppress the stranger, etc. Solomon adds to this and teaches that we two obligations toward such strangers: food and sustenance, and to treat him in a kindly fashion. He derives this from the verse “as a bird wandering from the nest, so is a man wandering from his place.” This is immediately followed by the verse about oil and perfume. As oil nourishes the body, and incense nourishes the soul, so must we provide for the poor stranger who has been exiled from his land.
This is an appropriate teaching to keep in mind as Israel struggles with the issue of refugees. There are hundreds of people who have fled oppression and violence in places like Sudan, braving the Egyptian desert and police to make their way to Israel in hope of some kind of sanctuary. Rebbeinu Bachya teaches us that our Jewish values insist we treat such people with compassion, providing for both their physical needs and emotional needs, treating them with respect.
This does NOT mean that Israel necessarily has to be the “last stop” for anyone in exile, fleeing oppression and violence. But it does mean that while such people are our guests, they need to be treated with compassion and dignity.