Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah –Mishpatim
Watching more than our share of “made for television serials,” we see how people spend episode after episode visiting new lands, meeting new life-forms, realizing that everyone is a stranger, and learning that our ways are not always the best ways (not what we thought at the beginning of the episode).
The good guy at the beginning of the episode ended up being the evildoer by the end. We see the repeated cameo appearances of people seeming to straddle any relationship’s good and bad sides. We know for sure that the uglier the physical appearance of the alien or stranger, the more altruistic is the heart of the character. Conversely, the more human or physically beautiful the character – the more inhumane is his/her behavior.
We are all strangers. Each of us lives with a worldview unique to ourselves. Often, we walk through the world expecting everyone else to live by our rules. When they fail to do so, we respond, often negatively, and further entrench ourselves in the idea that we are right, they are wrong. Moreover, tolerating their wrongness threatens our security, the very essence of our being. Someone once told me, “If you are my wingman, you better do exactly what I want you to do, or you threaten my life.” When I expressed that we were not at war, the response was simple, “We are always at war.”
So enter the Torah. Exodus 21:20 reads, “The stranger, you will not wrong or oppress.” Why should we not do this? “Because you were strangers In the land of Egypt.” We are supposed to have empathy for the stranger because we have been in his/her shoes.
We have been the strangers in a new land. Whether we moved from a foreign country, a city across this land, or even the school district the next town over, we have all found ourselves playing (or being cast in the role of) the role of the stranger.
On the one hand, we get to reinvent ourselves with each move. On the other far more oppressive hand, we have to earn our way into an already established society or get left behind. Of course, there are the people who always lived there but whose dignity other folks (sometimes newcomers) choose to ignore. The native becomes the stranger.
As per the Torah, Israel lived in Egypt for a few generations before Pharaoh enslaved and murdered them. The people of Israel were no longer newcomers by that point; they were, however, still the outsiders – the other. No different is the story of Nazi Germany or any of the lands in which Jews have lived and then been forced out or killed.
In reading this week’s portion, I think of Native Americans who lived these lands for centuries before White Europeans came to “settle” it. The strangers from another world threw the native landholders from their lands and press them into small pieces of land … refugee camps … reservations. White Europeans justified the disaster as “taming the west.” It was less violent and vile before we “fixed it.”
I think of Black America (and all oppressed people) who came here as the oppressed stranger. Even after “liberation,” they remain the oppressed stranger. I think of political opposition that relegates everyone who disagrees – to the justifiably persecuted stranger’s status.
Go further back and at different points in history, Christians were the oppressed stranger in Rome. Muslims have a history of being oppressed in the East and the West. None of us have ever spent eternity on top.
For Star Trek fans, I always lauded the “Prime Directive” that kept Starfleet from interfering with the lives of other cultures. While the world as we know it built its power on the backs of oppressed people, the storyline presumes that over a third World War, we figured out that violence only begets violence: we needed to return to cherishing all human dignity. In the same sense that the prayers we utter are supposed to motivate us to do the work of making them come true, one of the ongoing themes behind the many iterations of the series is to push us to see the necessity of making the goal real without needing a WWIII.
Do not oppress or wrong the stranger. Take care of everyone – no exceptions.