At the march in Selma last month, Dr. Susannah Heschel gave a fiery speech in the prophetic social justice spirit of her father Abraham Joshua Heschel calling upon the Jewish community not to turn inwards. With the threats against Israel, the rising anti-Semitism in the world, and the challenges of the changing Jewish community in America there is the inclination to hunker down and take care of one’s own. How can we care about the rest of the world when we are struggling ourselves?
While all of these are real issues, I agree with Dr. Heschel that we must not respond to them by turning inwards. Yes, we must stand up for ourselves, but if we are only for ourselves then what are we? This Pesach, the repeating imperative in the Torah to care for the “other” is calling out to us:
“You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Torah reminds the Israelites that when they are established in the land they must not forget the lessons of their enslavement and vulnerability in Egypt. Instead, they must look to their humble origins to access empathy for those who are in such a position when they reach a position of power in the land.
This ancient message remains timeless and relevant for us as a Jewish community. While we are facing our own serious challenges for simply asserting our Jewish identity, there are others in our midst who are suffering. Whether it is racial, religious, or economic discrimination, we know that there are serious issues that plague our society. By turning away from those who are oppressed as a Jewish community, we bear a share of the responsibility by being complicit in perpetuating the ills in our society. We can not avoid, excuse, or attempt to remain neutral in the face of others’ suffering. Again, in the words of Heschel, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
There is a progression in the intensity of the moral imperative of this mitzvah as it is repeated through the Torah. It begins with, “You shall not wrong or oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). Building on this it says, “You shall not oppress the stranger for you know the soul of the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Then the Torah goes even further, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 20:34).
When we follow the Torah’s prescription of turning outwards to care for the “other,” we place ourselves in a position of strength. This may be why the Torah uses the word “stranger” and not “slave” in these cases when describing our experience in Egypt. For when we reach out to the other we transform our negative experience of being enslaved into empathetic strength that we can access to protect the others in our midst who may be vulnerable. The Torah is teaching us that by taking action on behalf of others we transform the way that we perceive ourselves and our history – from helpless slave to empowered and empathetic defender of the other.
Once we shift our treatment and perception of the other in our midst, by protecting the stranger as one of our own, we fully redeem ourselves from slavery’s lasting legacy. This can be understood in the ultimate command at the end of the Torah that further challenges our empathetic capability: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land. Children born to them may be admitted into the congregation of the Lord in the third generation” (Deuteronomy 23:9). The Israelites’ experience in Egypt comes full circle by incorporating the Egyptian stranger into their society, the descendents of those who once enslaved them. The Torah sets a high moral standard for us to strive towards.
Building relationships with other races and religions in our midst is a crucial first step to build bridges of understanding in our two diverse societies of America and Israel. In my experience, grassroots dialogue with other communities gives each person permission to inhabit his or her own faith, racial, and ethnic identity. While we may interact with people who very different from us on a daily basis, we rarely engage people in the fullness of our respective identities. Engaging in such encounters is sacred. To create such a space, we must intentionally pierce through our routine transactional ways of relating to people by intentionally listening and embracing the other as a person created in the image of God. This sacred encounter provides the opportunity to learn from the other how we express our common human experience differently and ultimately celebrating the varied world that God designed with wisdom. Building such bridges with others most effectively occurs person to person on the local level.
When we live up to this moral imperative, when we garner the strength and confidence to reach out to the other, even those who were our enemies in the past, when we change our self-perception of being weak by lifting up others in our midst, then we know that we are fulfilling the Torah’s challenge regarding the stranger. Let us heed this timeless message of Torah restated by Dr. Heschel by reaching outwards to those who are strangers in our midst. Building these bridges of understanding we redeem ourselves and those around us.
חג כשר ושמח May you have a joyful and kosher Passover!