You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
I remember being in college and learning for the first time about the very commonplace and very human phenomenon of victims becoming victimizers. Of abusers having themselves been abused. I remember the surprise I felt. No—surprise doesn’t capture it. Naïve as it seems to me now, I was stunned. For just a moment, the world appeared to me as in a fun-house mirror at a carnival: upside-down and distorted almost beyond recognition.
This was the opposite of what I had learned early on, at home and at Hebrew school, that because we Jews have known suffering we feel called to ease the suffering of others. That as former refugees, immigrants, slaves, targets of hatred, persecution, and genocide, we are perfectly positioned to empathize with and advocate for others who find themselves in similar straits. As a child I took this teaching to heart, and pressed it into action.
But I was a privileged child. I had not personally experienced real suffering, privation, abuse, or persecution, outside of some mild schoolyard teasing to which children frequently fall prey. It was easy for me, loved as I was, to cultivate compassion for the hardships of others.
And so I was a young adult, living away from home for the first time, a bit of a stranger at an elite New England college—one that had in the not-so-distant past been all-male. There I first considered that perhaps the reason this teaching (“you shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers . . .”) is repeated so many times (at least three dozen) in Torah is not only because it is so important, but also because it is so difficult.
Especially when we’ve been there ourselves. We see this in the behavior of children. A perverse sense of justice, of fairness, takes hold: I suffered this (fill in the blank: shame; pain; real or perceived privation) and survived. And you should too. Otherwise, where’s the justice?
But this reasoning makes some false assumptions. First: that we are all completely separate, autonomous individuals. Second: that we operate in a competitive, zero-sum relationship toward one another. And third: that justice has more to do with the past than with the future, more to do with retribution and settling scores than with compassion and forgiveness.
Rather, we live in a world of deep connection, where my freedom depends on the freedom of others; where I cannot truly prosper if my prosperity rests on the oppression of others; and where our only path to a world of justice and peace lies in the possibility, now, of building it together. We see this endlessly playing out in great literature, in history, and in our lives.
As a society, we pay dearly for maintaining an underclass rather than ensuring everyone’s prosperity. We pay, both materially and spiritually, for the prison-industrial complex that destroys lives and families and embitters the souls of imprisoned and imprisoners in equal measure. We all lose when we discount the power and value of love and grace, words that might sound more Christian than Jewish to our English-speaking ears. But translate them into Hebrew: chein ve-chesed. These are words we find in Torah for describing God. These are words describing how God wants us to behave toward one another.
It is hard to love the stranger. The stranger represents the unknown, which scares us. Nevertheless we must find a way to do it, to protect and lift up the most vulnerable in our society, to rise above our own injuries, to imagine a future illuminated by love and mercy and unconditional blessing. That is why our Torah reminds us of it so many times. That is why, every year, we gather around the seder table to consider what more we must do to create a world in which everyone’s needs are met, in which we find our collective redemption, in which we all are truly free.
These are difficult lessons, and yet we must strive to learn them. These lessons have real-world implications. They should impact the choices we make when we spend our money, when we vote, when we speak, whenever we find ourselves in relation with the earth or with other people. What is the promise of Passover, year after year, if not the freedom to transcend our broken past and repair a broken world? Will we live up to it at last? How will we treat the stranger, the vulnerable in our midst, this year?