…For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt.

Last week, the Torah portion included a verse that I consider to be among the most central in Judaism.

“You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 23:9.

This quote serves as a reminder that it is all too easy to forget what it feels like to be an oppressed minority when we are not in that minority. It reminds us that we must be ever mindful of how it feels to be a minority, and that we must not simply look after ourselves.

For almost two millenia, Jews had no problem remembering the feelings of the outsider. We were, after all, outsiders in every land in which we lived. Following the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from the Holy Land by Rome in A.D. 70, we have wandered among nations where we were a minority, and most often an oppressed minority.

In Roman time we were a tolerated minority, but one considered foreign, and not welcome. When we lived in Arab lands during the 7th to 12th Centuries, we were a “protected minority,” with a more or less secure status. There were laws which safeguarded our freedoms, but also significant restrictions. In Medieval Europe we were truly an oppressed minority through most of the Middle Ages, with rights significantly curtailed and few protections.

In 21st Century America, however, it’s a different story. We remain a minority, but certainly not an oppressed one. While it is not true that all Jews are well off, on the whole, Jews are probably somewhat better off than most Americans. We probably do enjoy somewhat greater political influence than our numbers would suggest (I’m having trouble finding an accurate list of the number of Jews in the Senate, but all the lists seem to include more than 10, which is 10% of the senate, as opposed to the percentage of Jews in America, which is 1.3%). What I want to point out is that we are now an entrenched part of the establishment, rather than the stranger.

For the first time in 2000 years, we now need to concentrate on understanding what it feels like to be the outsider. At the same time, we are now in a position to actually help the stranger. Because we now have influence and power, we must strive to remember the feelings of the stranger, and work to help the stranger.  When we were powerless, being mindful of the feelings of other oppressed strangers was relatively easy, and not particularly useful. We could empathize, but weren’t in a position to help them particularly. Now, we must consciously remember how it felt to be the outsider. How we felt about it when immigration quotas limited the number of Jews who could enter the U.S. We must remember how hard it was for Jews to assimilate into the U.S. when we first arrived, and we must help others.

“You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” For 2000 years, the Torah taught this, but it had little to teach, because we were the stranger. Now that we are not strangers, this teaching becomes far more important, and one we must seek to live out.


8 Responses to “…For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt.”

  1. Rebel Says:

    Actually I was watching the PBS special about Jewish Americans and it talked about the degree to which white Jewish people participated in the Civil Rights movement. It was pretty impressive. Clearly those individuals felt a spiritual connection to African Americans…. being able to identify with being strangers & slaves in Egypt.

  2. rabbidavidkominsky Says:

    I agree with you entirely. I also think things have changed enormously for the American Jewish community in the 40 -50 years since the civil rights movement. At that point, we were not the “establishment”. We were still on the outside looking in. There were places clubs that did not accept Jewish members, or which had just begun to. Anti-Semitism was a daily fact of life for Jews of that era.

    Today, I’m less convinced that Jews would be as involved. While I certainly know some Jews who work for immigrant rights, I also know many who are strongly opposed to illegal immigrants, or allowing greater immigration. I’m not saying the two situations are exactly parallel, because they are not, but they do seem to be the closest comparisons I can make.

  3. Maddy in NC Says:

    Forwarding this link to my grown sons, who just don’t seem to get it. Thank you for a beautiful post.

  4. Joseph B Says:

    Thank you for this well thought out treatment of an important issue for our times. Now if i could only get members of the Christian Right to be so reflective and fair….

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  8. Toleration – The Spiritual Life Says:

    […] 5, 2008 posting by Rabbi David Kominsky …For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt. Accessed January 25, […]

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