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We Are All Strangers #711

01/28/2022 05:33:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Mishpatim
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

We Are All Strangers

About seven years ago, a group within our congregation was formed to plan CTI’s future for the next five years.

The committee was called “20-20 Vision,” and over six months, it produced a plan that ultimately inspired many of the innovative approaches that guide our synagogue today.

But it didn’t begin that way.

As we met for the first time one Sunday morning in 2016, many initially sat with their arms folded, until someone said, “I’m not sure I belong here. I can’t read Hebrew.”

“I’m not sure I belong either,” echoed someone else. “My husband is not Jewish.” And the conversation continued around the table.

Some felt they were too young to be asked for their opinion. Others questioned whether we were open to LGBTQ — since one of their children was married to a same sex partner.

“I’m not sure I’m religious enough,” someone else stated. “I don’t know any prayers,” added another. “I’m not sure I totally believe in God.” Every person, it seemed, admitted that in some way, they felt they didn’t belong.

Finally someone observed: “It seems that everyone here feels like in some way they are a stranger.” To which someone responded, “Welcome to the club.”

These days, it is so easy to feel like a stranger.

Have you ever entered a social setting and felt you didn’t belong, or weren’t up to the conversation?

Have you ever felt sad and had no one to share it with — or experienced hopelessness, especially during these challenging times?

The Torah refers to this phenomenon in this week’s parashah. On the surface, it presents a straightforward commandment.

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)

What an insightful mitzvah. It reminds us that we, as a nation, are descended from Egyptian slavery. As a people we know what it is like to be subjected to persecution and prejudice. It flows through our bloodstream.

All the more reason that — as a people — we serve as standard bearers in the fight against injustice.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1965 March on Selma. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Israel opened its doors in 2008 to thousands of displaced refugees from Sudan and Darfur. The list is endless. And part of it can be attributed to the Biblical concept of empathy.

Rashi (1040-1105), Judaism’s greatest commentator, takes the idea one step further.

He notes that when any of us minimizes the dignity of a stranger, we are — in essence — ignoring the perpetual stranger within.

Says Rashi: “The one you oppress can taunt you back and say, ‘You too come from strangers.’ Do not chastise someone else for the very “flaw” you have in yourself.”

That flaw is embedded within that feeling of “strangerhood,” which we often carry collectively and as individuals.

We are blessed to live in a diverse country, which welcomes those eager to embrace freedom, and to contribute. 

America’s initial port of entry carries a promise: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

Many do not speak, worship, eat or dress the same way as we do. But over time, they add new shades and textures to our national mosaic.

As we did.

How many of our parents and grandparents came to this country with a single suitcase, a few kopeks, a backpack — and the desire to work hard?

They were often treated like strangers. 

But over time, the stranger became unstrange. Over time, hard work, persistence, love of family and community helped form the country we enjoy today.

It is the same for almost all Americans. 

This week’s Torah portion contains a total of 53 mitzvot (commandments). But perhaps none is more imperative than the one relating to the stranger. It is so important, that it is repeated 36 times in the Torah.

As we stand upon the shoulders of our parents and grandparents, we are reminded that everyone deserves a chance to contribute. For as Rashi reminds us, each of us is blessed with the “flaw” of "strangerhood."

Indeed, each of us can at times feel like a stranger as we contemplate the unanswerable question, “How did we get here, and what is our purpose?”

All the more reason to draw upon our own vulnerability and practice what many believe to be the most important line in the Torah

As the great Sage, Hillel, told a stranger who requested that he teach him the Torah on one foot, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: This is the whole Torah; the rest is the commentary.”

This week’s Torah portion reminds us to reach back into our humble roots, from Egypt to America.

As the great Sage, the Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), noted when he commented on this sacred commandment: “You must not wrong a stranger merely because you have more power than he or she does.”

The good news is that we can make a difference.

We can draw on the stranger within to embrace the newcomer, the new citizen, the new member of our community.  

And as the recent increase of anti-Semitism continues to remind us, we will always be strangers. It is a Jewish fact of life. 

The Passover story teaches that although we come from a history of slavery, we were ultimately set free. Ever more reason to nurture and to raise that freedom within others.

Our commentators remind us, as we review this week’s Torah portion, to embrace our genetic humility.

Let us, therefore, use that power, that sense of empathy, for good.

For each of us, in some way, is a stranger.

Shabbat shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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