Ex. 21:1 – 24:18
Rabbi Gary Pokras
“You shall neither deceive a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 22:20)
Two weeks ago, in our exploration of parashat BeShallach, we highlighted the central importance of our origin as slaves in Egypt. Our history of oppression helps us develop empathy for the ‘other,’ and to build just communities. This week, that message is repeated with emphasis.
There is no question that looking after the needs of the most vulnerable is a core Jewish value. However, Torah is rarely limited to surface meanings. Rabbi Joshua Minkin offers a more subtle way to understand our verse about caring for the stranger. He suggests that, in addition to the strangers in our midst, each of us also carries a stranger within us – that part of ourselves that we avoid or deny.1 Whether it is our picture-perfect social media images or the secrets about ourselves and our personal lives that we hide from our friends and neighbors, we all repress some part(s) of ourselves when we project a more put-together or perfect persona.
When we lie to ourselves about the truth of who we are, or we judge ourselves negatively, we oppress the stranger within us. When we live two separate, contradictory realities – one inner and one outer, we diminish our spirit, our very souls.
In other words, our efforts to appear more acceptable or likeable causes a self-inflicted condition of exclusion, separating our true selves from our neighbors and communities. The language of inclusion used to be one of tolerance. However, ‘tolerance’ is a terrible word. It says, ‘I will tolerate your presence even if I don’t really like or know you.’ A better word is ‘acceptance,’ meaning, ‘I accept you for who you are.’ Yet even that is not enough. What we really need, in addition to acceptance, is a genuine sense of respect. We need to embrace not only our similarities, but also our differences – to learn to love the stranger, the strangeness of others, and of ourselves.
How can we have empathy for the strangers around us, when we deny the very existence of the strangers within us? To be compassionate to our neighbors, we must also learn to be honest, and gentle with ourselves.