by Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
Rabbi Soloveitchik does not mince words, “The experience of Egyptian servitude underlies the very morality of the Jew.” The import of what he asserts here is vital if we are to truly understand the call to holiness that is, at its foundation, what it means to be a Jew.
Even for a people who have known historical moments filled with anguish beyond measure, there remains no time in our history that was more debasing, more demeaning, more humiliating than our time of servitude in Egypt. What ultimate value could it have had for us other than our awe and gratitude at God’s grace in sending out His mighty hand to free us? R’ Soloveitchik is clear that the value of our servitude goes far beyond our redemption for it is there in that cauldron of “… chicanery and humiliation…” where we were treated, “…like objects, not people…” that we were sensitized to the needs of our fellows; there that we gained our extraordinary sensitivity to the widow and orphan. It was there that our sacred hearts were forged.
It was there, that we learned rachmanus.
In Parshat Ekev, we are confronted with one of the most compelling – and counter-intuitive – obligations in all Torah. “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Devarim 10:19) We have heard this exhortation so often that its awesome power is often diminished in our understanding; its profound uniqueness among human exhortations blurred in our eyes.
What human society does not hold the stranger suspect? Yet we are commanded to not only respect and accept the stranger but to befriend him! Such an exhortation runs counter to human nature! It certainly runs counter to the emotions and politics of our current moment. Our politicians cry out for taller and taller walls. Our politicians cry out that we should keep the stranger out! We are told that safety exists only behind walls, where we huddle and cower securely with our own kind.
Such exhortations do resonate emotionally. The “other”, the “stranger” is, something we reflexively recoil from. Yet our tradition demands we turn away from this inner fear, teaches us to reach beyond our physical and emotional walls to greet and welcome the stranger. Know his fear. Know his pain. For it is in knowing and understanding his fear and pain we come to know and understand that he really is no stranger at all. After all, in the land of Egypt, we were gerim. We too know what it means to be the alien, the “other”, the feared and the reprehensible. That experience should inform our understanding of the plight of others.
Too often, it does not.
Ramban teaches that we are commanded to love the ger because Hashem loves him. We know this because Hashem loves us, and we were strangers too. Our experience, of pain, of degradation, of alienation; our sense of disassociation teaches us that God loves the stranger. And, if God loves the stranger so should we for just as God is holy, we are commanded to be holy.
Sefer HaChinuch tells us that when someone leaves his family and his country of origin to become a “stranger” in a new environment, it is a very difficult adjustment. To survive and to thrive, the stranger needs help and support. We are obligated to provide it.
Our understanding of the ger and this mitzvah must be rooted in our Mitzrayim experience. For we all must experience the pain and angst of the galut, of the wilderness of our souls; none of us can be born redeemed. It is only in our wandering and our wrestling with our lives and our experience that we appreciate redemption and the grace God affords us. Without galut there is no grace and redemption. Without the ger there is no citizen.
Our destiny is bound in the success of the ger. Just as our own experience as strangers brought us to the foot of Sinai, we must recognize that in every ger is the potential for a Sinai experience. It is our obligation to help, not hinder; to open our hearts, not harden them.
This mitzvah asks us, demands of us, to challenge the very heart of who we are, to be willing – no, to be more than willing, to actively pursue – embracing the experience of the ger, to care for the ger.
For we were gerim…
So many of us go to great lengths to avoid the ger. We push away the possibility of interacting with, crossing paths with, engaging the ger. In doing so, we turn our backs on the Mitzrayim experience and diminish it. R’ Soloveitchik’s insight teaches us that we must remember Mitzrayim not once a year at Pesach but every day of our lives in our dealings with our fellows. After all, we are all strangers to one another until rachmanus helps us to understand each other.
If, rather than embrace and care for the stranger, we push him away then our world narrows. If we interact only with those who look like us, dress like us, hold our same values dear, worship in the same shul, follow the same rebbe, work in the same professions then our world narrows. If we shun the stranger, if we turn away, our world narrows.
We forget Mitzrayim and, in forgetting, lose our ability to have rachmanus.
We turn our backs on God’s command. We squander our redemption.
We not only define the stranger as he that is not “like us” but also, he that has been us and suffers some life event that shifts his thinking or his experience. A death, a divorce, a business loss.
Nowhere is our narrowness – for it is narrowness! And does not “mitzrayim” mean “a narrow place”? Those without rachmanus, those who do not welcome the stranger, are still in Mitzrayim – more evident than in how we deal with that OTD person. Oye! God spare me from him. Keep him away from my chevra. Keep him away from my community, my shul. After all, I can’t be responsible for every failure out there.
“You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Shemot 22:20).
In Ekev, God tells us that we are responsible for the ger.
But who is the ger?
We are all the ger! Until we recognize the ger within ourselves; until we recognize our fears and alienation; until we remember that we were all new to a place at some point, we have not escaped Egypt. We have not been redeemed.
Our redemption is our rachmanus. Without it, we choose slavery.
We feel that the “other” is a threat to everything we hold dear; to everything we invest our time and efforts to preserve. Our political moment is particularly raw and contentious. Immigrants are “the other”. They diminish us. They take our jobs, our resources, our land.
Strangers. And, as strangers, a bit less than human.
R’ Soloveitchik might remind us that Pharaoh considered us less than human when we were in Egypt. We know how it feels to be the ones demonized, diminished and mistreated. We were never less than human, never anything but God’s creatures in the galut but always, always praying for, striving for, remaining in search of their coming redemption.
God does not accept our fear, our incendiary words, our hateful speech and behavior. “You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Shemot 22:20).
When we stood at the foot of Sinai, perhaps we had already forgotten the fear and shame of being gerim. God demands that we remember, not for ourselves but for others who still feel those demeaning emotions even as we bask in the light of grace.
Who is the ger?
We all are.
Who is in galut?
We all are.
Who stands at the foot of Sinai?
We all do.
What is our redemption?