Just as we are poised to celebrate the beginning of a secular New Year filled with new possibilities and new opportunities, we will begin to once again visit the next book in our Torah cycle, the book of Exodus, Sefer Sh’mot, and search for new insights.
Exodus not only details our experience of liberation, but of enslavement as well. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch delineates that experience of exile and enslavement in Egypt as consisting of three phases. The process begins with the Israelites being perceived as being Other, foreigners or outsiders, when compared to the rest of the Egyptian populace. This sense of Gerut, or Otherness, leads almost inevitably to slavery or Avdut. Slavery then descends into dehumanization and degradation or Inui.
The Egyptian experience can be seen as an archetype for the Jewish experience of persecution in other lands throughout history. Being perceived as different or as an outsider is followed by persecution. Persecution then becomes institutionalized and part of the very fabric of society. Society then strips the stranger, not only of rights, but of a sense of individual worth and identity, making it easier for abuse and mistreatment to occur.
This process of gradual dehumanization is why the Torah emphasizes over and over again not to oppress the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt and goes so far as to demand that we in fact love the stranger. On no less than 36 occasions the Torah demands justice for the stranger.
Why so much emphasis on the stranger? Because we are the stranger. Abraham left home and lived as a stranger among the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. Moses experienced being an outsider in both the seat of power and among the least powerful. More than abstract understandings based on emotional sympathy or analytic reason, we know from concrete experience what it means to be a stranger.
And so when we hear contemporary rhetoric demeaning the stranger, denigrating the immigrant and dehumanizing the refugee, that language is all too familiar. It reminds us of our own experiences when we were the other and the abused. As we begin a new year and a new book, let us learn anew from our experiences, speaking out on behalf of those seen as strangers, extending ourselves not only to embrace the stranger, but to transform the stranger into a friend.
Shabbat candles should be lit on Fridays, December 25 at 5:10 p.m.; January 1 at 5:15 p.m.; January 8 at 5:59 p.m., January 15 at 5:28 p.m.; January 22 at 5:36 p.m. and January 29 at 5:44 p.m.
Editor’s note: Rabbi David Feder, the principal of Louisville Beit Sefer Yachad, has volunteered to provide Torah commentaries for Community