What we should have learned

The major lessons learned from the experience of being a stranger in a strange land and Egyptian enslavement were that we should never allow ourselves to be enslaved again.

August 27, 2015 14:51
‘Hand of God in Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea,’

‘Hand of God in Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea,’ wall painting from the Dura-Europas synagogue in Syria. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A few years ago I was asked to participate in the writing of a volume titled Exodus in the Jewish Experience. My chapter concerned the influence of the Exodus on Halacha. What I discovered was that the two most important matters in Halacha that resulted from the experience of the Exodus were very different. One was inwardly directed, the other outward.

Inwardly, Israelite slavery was abolished. Having been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, we were never again to be enslaved to any human being, the Torah decreed. “For unto Me are they avadim (slaves – meaning “servants”)…” (Lev. 25:42), declares God. God has exclusive rights to their service.

Therefore, what is termed an eved ivri – a Hebrew slave – is, as the Sages themselves said, only an indentured servant, someone who sells himself into service for a limited time under very strictly controlled conditions.

After commanding that the Hebrew eved must be freed at the conclusion of six years of service, and that he must then be given copious provisions, Moses adds, “Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today” (Deut. 15:15).

Outwardly, the result of the experience of the Exodus was an extreme sensitivity to the difficulties of being a ger – a stranger or resident alien in someone else’s homeland. This results in an entire series of laws and exhortations in the Torah about caring for and not mistreating the strangers who would live with us in the land of Canaan.

There is not enough room in this piece to cite every one of the Torah’s verses on this theme; there are so many scattered throughout the Torah.

Here are a few: “You shall not wrong the stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20); “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (ibid. 23:9); “…decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger” (Deut. 1:16).

The pinnacle of them is: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev.19:33-34).

The major lessons learned from the experience of being a stranger in a strange land and Egyptian enslavement were that we should never allow ourselves to be enslaved again, and that what we have suffered as strangers we should never inflict upon anyone else.

If one were to write a book on the influence of the Diaspora experience, culminating in the Holocaust, on Jewish conduct, what would we discover? What should it have taught us? I would suggest two things, one inward and one outer directed.

Inwardly, it could be summed up in the often misused phrase “Never again.” Never again allow any group or any nation to seek the annihilation of the Jews. Never again remain in a place where you, as a Jew, are in danger of your life. Never again allow the situation to exist in which there is no place for a Jew to go to seek refuge – therefore the need for a Jewish state and a law that gives Jews the right to live there. That is all so obvious that it hardly needs to be stated, just as the abolition of Israelite slavery was a given.

Outwardly, the lesson to my mind – like the biblical love of the stranger – is that when we have power and are in control, we should never treat others as we were treated over the centuries, climaxing in the unspeakable hell of the Holocaust.

In foreign lands Jews were mistreated, beaten, killed, persecuted and reviled. Less violently, even in more tolerant places, over the centuries Jews were often denied equal rights, discriminated against, not welcome to live in certain places, considered less than human, the victims of doctrines of racial inferiority and superiority.

Jewish houses of worship were burned. Graffiti against Jews were scrawled on our homes and buildings.

Therefore, when we are in positions of power, we must never commit any of those same crimes against any other people or religion. That may not be stated explicitly in the written Torah, but it is certainly present in the unwritten teaching and implicit in everything the Torah says about the stranger. It was best expressed by the great Sage Hillel 2,000 years ago in his famous Aramaic epigram attempting to encapsulate Judaism while standing on one foot: That which is hateful to you, do not do to someone else (Shabbat 31a).

That is why it is so upsetting, to put it mildly, when there are Jews in our own land who set churches and mosques on fire, who write graffiti slandering Arabs, who call out death to Arabs – who actually harm and even kill them.

Of course no one has done here what was done to Jews in the Shoah – total genocide.

Only a government could accomplish that, and our government would not do anything of that sort. But some individuals and gangs have done all of these other things, all of which should be abhorrent to any Jew of any sort, no matter how fanatic.

There may not be many such vandals among us – one would be too many – but all the rest of us have to make it very clear that what they are doing is not moral, not ethical, not acceptable, not Jewish.

Our Sages said of us that Jews are rahmanim bnei rahmanim, merciful children of merciful ancestors – and these people are anything but that. There are no excuses for their actions and their words and no excuses for those who tolerate them or look the other way, instead of excluding them from the fellowship of Israel. They are not in any sense what they pretend to be – the only true Jews.

As we learned from the Exodus, the lessons from such a terrible experience must be not only what we do to avoid such things in the future, but what it teaches us about how we should act toward others.

The experience of life as a powerless minority in foreign lands with all of its suffering, including the horrors of the Shoah, should have taught us the same lesson.

What is hateful to you, do not do to someone else. ■

The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).

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