Meyer Laniado
Meyer Laniado

How to achieve true freedom

By Edward Poynter - Art Renewal Center, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2105966
By Edward Poynter - Art Renewal Center, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2105966
Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, fought for democracy and liberty against her country’s oppressive military regime and won. Once she came to power, she followed the same repression tactics and subjugation, slaughtering tens of thousands without trial and suppressing freedom of speech and democracy. As Bill Richardson, a US diplomat, said: “Her government has been as enthusiastic about jailing journalists and government critics as the military government that preceded hers.” This cycle has been repeated time and time again the world over in Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. Once freed, the oppressed become the new oppressors.

As Paulo Freire stated in his book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that is the natural course: “But almost always…the oppressed…tend themselves to become oppressors…” Since “the very structure of their thought has been conditioned…” and “their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors. This is their model of humanity.” That is why he concludes that “it is a rare peasant who, once ‘promoted’ to overseer, does not become more of a tyrant towards his former comrades than the owner himself.” They do not know a more profitable management style.

On the other hand, Elias Canetti explains the transformation from oppressed to oppressor as a way to free oneself of ‘the sting.’ The sting is the pain one feels, whether consciously or subconsciously, from the subjugation, threat, or violence from another. One of the ways of ridding oneself of the sting is to pass it on to another. As he explains: “He retains it in its original form until an opportunity arises to get rid of it by passing it on to someone else” (Crowds and Power 330). The cycle of oppression continues, and, regardless of the freedoms that were fought for, the newly freed will find themselves subjugating others using the same tactics used against them.

Our Torah is aware of this cycle of oppression, and it offers humanity an antidote to break the cycle of the oppressed becoming the oppressor. It is a revolutionary model and one of the most powerful messages contained in our Passover holiday. We are told to remember the bitterness of our own enslavement, and instead of becoming the new oppressors, we are to become agents of emancipation. The Jewish mission is to restructure society from a hierarchy of the powerful dominating the weak to a society that uplifts those on the bottom rung. The memory of our pain, the sting, should cause us to turn the poison that is slavery into medicine for others. The Torah reminds us of this message thirty-six times (Bavli Bava Mesia 59b). One of the examples is Exodus 23:9, “And you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And so, the experience of Egyptian slavery serves the role of creating empathy in us towards the stranger, the weak, and those in need. In that way, we create a horizontal society with freedom for all, simultaneously liberating ourselves and our once masters. Without this model, the freed become enslaved to their oppressor’s ideology. Their oppressor will always live inside of them. The Torah teaches us how to dislodge and purge the painful experience of slavery by transforming it into empathy.

It is what Rabbi Akiva was referring to when he said his famous phrase: “Love your fellow as yourself, that is the major principle in the Torah” (Sifra Kedoshim 2:4). His statement continues in Midrash Rabba (Beresheit 24) and says: “Don’t say that since I was embarrassed, I will embarrass another.” In other words: ‘Do not pass the sting.’ Transform your experience into empathy. Rabbi Akiva’s predecessor, Hillel, explained to a prospective convert that the central message of the entire Torah is: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to another” (Bavli Shabbat 31a). When mistreated, we learn about what not to do, empowering us to treat others better. It is a reversal of the cycle of the oppressed becoming the next oppressor.

In turn, our Egyptian slavery becomes the basis of our care for the foreigner, the downtrodden, and the weak. As the Torah references our experience: “…because you know the spirit of the foreigner” (Exodus 23:9). While we are sovereign in the land of Israel, enjoying the fruits of our labor, we bring our first fruits to the Temple. There we recite what is now the base of our Haggadah, arami oved avi, the section about which we are told that the more we elaborate, the more praiseworthy it is, hare ze meshubah.

There we remind ourselves that we were once the wanderers, the strangers, and the oppressed. Now that we are ‘the haves,’ we should treat the ‘have nots’ with empathy. That is the culmination of the arami oved avi paragraph:

Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you. When you have finished tithing all the tithes of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give [them] to the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, and the widow, so that they can eat to satiety in your cities (Deuteronomy 26:11-13).

This learning from our difficulties empowers us to improve ourselves and, ultimately, the world. As Rabbi Steinmetz expressed in his letter to the community after recovering from his fractured femur in 2019:

During my first few days in the hospital, what shocked me is how ignorant I had been all my life. I had visited hospitals hundreds of times and listened to people describe their pain. But I never understood what they were going through until I myself experienced the extreme agony of being absorbed in my own pain to the exclusion of everything else.

Rabbi Steinmetz internalized the feeling of vulnerability and created meaning from his struggle. This is what the arami oved avi paragraph is all about: never forget our vulnerability, especially when we are celebrating. That is how we improve ourselves and serve as role models for the world. It is how we break the cycle of the oppressed becoming the next oppressor because it is easy to forget when everything is rosy.

This is a core message of the Torah, which is why it reminds us of this over thirty-six times: “Do not oppress the stranger.” Why? “Because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). We need to remember that we were once in their shoes. We need to feel empathy. We need to help break the cycle of the oppressed becoming the oppressor. We need to reach out to the person who is where we once were, trying to find a job, working through a challenging relationship, ill, or struggling with a loss. We need to raise them up to be the person we wish we had been during our time of difficulty since “you know the spirit of the stranger.” You know what it was like, so do not ‘pass the sting,’ but transform it into the cure, veAhavtem et haGer, “and love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19). In this way, we will serve as a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6, 49:6, 60:3), offering a new model of real freedom and liberty for all.

About the Author
Rabbi Meyer Laniado is the associate rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and serves as the leader of its thriving Sephardic community on New York's Upper East Side.
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