08 September 2014

Strangers in our midst

            In the parashah Ki Teitzei Torah says, “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your kinsman . . . .”  The Edomites are the descendants of Esau, and I have feltand still experience great sympathy for him. His plea, “Have you no blessing for me, Father?’ breaks my heart. And Torah records that when they meet across the Jabbok, it is Esau who falls on Jacob’s neck and kisses him, but there is no sense that Jacob reciprocates the greeting. And then, having refused to travel along with Esau to his home where Esau says that a great feast has been prepared, Jacob breaks his word to visit with his brother and his family, and heads with his entourage in the other direction. (I have also wondered why it was that Jacob traveled throughout the wide desert in a path that would cross that of his brother.) Esau waits in vain and I suspect in pain. Torah says I cannot abhor the Edomite because he is my kinsman; though interestingly Jacob’s behavior displays abhorrence for his Edomite kinsman! Wouldn’t Esau’s invitation to Jacob be a better example of the behaviors Torah advocates? I am, in fact, fond of Esau.
            Torah continues: “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land.” It has been suggested that Torah counsels us that though we were brutally enslaved, treated unbearably in slavery, and experienced the attempt at genocide and subject to unthinkable cruelty, we must not hate the Egyptians. And I think that it was suggested that to hold onto a hatred of the Egyptians would be to hate ourselves. We do not necessarily have to forgive, but we can not hate!
            But I don’t get a sense in this parashah that Torah advocates that I give up hatred. For right before the verses about the Edomites and Egyptians the Torah says, “No Ammonite or Moabite shall be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, none of their descendants, even in the 10th generation shall ever be admitted into the congregation of the Lord, because they did not meet you with food and water in your journey after you left Egypt, and because they hired Balaam, so of Beor. You shall never concern yourself with their welfare or benefit as long as you live . . .” Well, to me that sounds like holding on to hate—and I won’t here address the statements about the Amalekites at the end of the parashah. The remarkable contradiction: You shall wipe out their memory, followed by the command, “do not forget.” Perhaps the latter commandment refers to not forgetting that we should wipe them out of our memory, but clearly in this case we do not let go of hate—every enemy of the Jewish people is linearly linked to Amalek. And how can we remember the deed and forget the perpetrator? Would it be to accept an eternal presence of evil in the world even in the absence of its locus anywhere specific?
            So I have been wondering what else can Torah mean by commanding that we shall not abhor an Egyptian, for we were strangers in his land! For one, perhaps it is that the experience of slavery defined our freedom and this must remain always in our hearts and minds. Without the experience of slavery and the liberation in the exodus we would not know the difference between slavery and freedom. Further, the experience of slavery defined our ethic: because we were strangers we must be especially sensitive to the strangers in our midst and to those others who are in most in need—the widow and the orphan and the stranger. It is the contiguity of the phrase “for you were a stranger in his land” that suggests to me that it is for this reason that we must not hate the Egyptian: though it is clear that the Egyptians did not care for the stranger when they made slaves of the Israelites. That they did not learn this lesson led to their drowning in the Red Sea. And of course, to have slaves is to enslave oneself to at least an ethic that degrades the slaveholder and denies them the enjoyment of a full life. I wonder how different Jefferson’s life might have been had been able to acknowledge his relationship with Sally Hemings? And didn’t Pharaoh’s daughter know that the child she discovered in the basket must have been a Jewish child, and I wonder how that experience altered forever her existence in the palace and her relationship with her father. I would not want my relationship with my daughters to exist on such a falsehood.
            Freedom from slavery marked the beginning of the Israelites as ‘a people,’ but it is the experience of slavery that seems to me to lie at the very base of Jewish ethics. Because we were strangers (not slaves the Torah emphasizes here but ‘strangers’) we must be especially concerned with the stranger in our midst and treat them as equals. There should be one law for you and the stranger! In an ironic way, I am thinking that Jews have come to define define ourselves not as former slaves but as a result of our experience of slavery. We had to become free to practice the ethic that was learned as a result of being slaves. The experience of slavery and the exodus defined the Jews as a people.  Why else would the phrase concerning the care of strangers in our midst appear 36 timestwo times chai. Without slavery there is no freedom.
            Does that mean we should all be slaves for a spell so that we might understand freedom? I think not: the stories of slavery are sufficient experience. Perhaps that might be an argument for the importance of immersion in the humanities: that we study the experiences and feelings of others, and to my mind I have read nowhere an account of slavery that portrays it as socially and/or personally edifying. It is abhorrent everywhere though it has been, and yet continues to be practiced. And if accountability is today our governing ethic, and if accountability is measurable, then I think that the very nature of the founding ethic of Judaism—caring for the stranger, widow and orphanis empty. You must not go back into your fields to retrieve what was originally missed; the corners of the field must be left available for the stranger to glean, and there is no measure for how big a corner might be.
            What is the difference between the Egyptians and the Moabites and the Ammonites? The latter deprives us of food and drink when we were hungry and thirsty and we asked for sustenance. They denied concern for the strangers in their midst. The Moabites and the Ammonites are the United States in the years that followed the Civil War and up to the present. But the Egyptians taught us what it feels like to be a stranger.


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