Loving the stranger even when the stranger is us.


I used to assume that all the slaves who came out of Egypt knew each other.

I would imagine them saying to each other on the way out, “Who did you have seder with last night? We were at the Goldbergs. You went to the Greenbergs? Did you see the Schwartzes there?”

Egypt is a big country. There were hundreds of thousands of slaves who were spread out all over the country. It is not likely that each knew more than a few people. As slaves they would have lived and worked in the same area.

They were mostly strangers to each other. Many may not have spoken same language. The people who came out of Egypt came from different regions and cultures. They also may not have trusted each other, thinking that there would be Egyptian spies among them.

Their first big event as a people was leaving Egypt and then running for their lives from Pharaoh’s men. It could have been a disaster dividing them for all time. Imagine how chaotic the scene was. Hundreds of thousands leaving at one time, and then suddenly chased by the enemy. In front of them is the sea. They could have tried to trample each other to get away. The could have ignored the ones who could not keep up.

Instead, they go through the sea together. They go through orderly and quietly. When they ge to the other side they sing together. Even though most of them remain strangers to each other afterward, maybe only knowing each other a little better, they continue their journey together into the unknown.

It would have been easier for God to take a small, tight knit group out of Egypt who already knew each other, and then start with them in the promised land.

There are two ideas I want to share about this. The first is very optimistic about humanity. The second one is, too, but it is not going to sound like it at the beginning.

I think God put all these strangers together to show the great potential that people have in making connections to each other in even in difficult circumstances.

God gives us our mission statement. You were strangers in a strange land, and your task is to help the stranger when you have the power to do so.

Strangers do not have to hate each other or be afraid of each other. They do not have to know each other to help each other. The Torah teaches us that the only way to get through our difficult situations, our Red Seas, is to help others get through theirs. For a society to succeed it must look out for the well being of everyone, those who fit in easily, and those who do not, those who are easy to deal with and those who are not. No one should feel like a stranger.

If you look at Nazi Germany, it was based on the idea that only some people are authentic and worthy of protection. Everyone else was a stranger. Only societies that protect everyone will ultimately survive.

The other idea I want to share, which is a little more challenging but important to think about, is that all human beings are strangers to each other, no matter how long we have known each other or in what context. It is impossible for anyone to really know anyone else, and that no one can really know us completely. We never really know ourselves fully or all the time. If we are a surprise to ourselves we are certainly a mystery to others, and they to us.

This could lead to endless frustration and pain. We don’t feel understood. We don’t speak the language of our loved ones. We can feel like strangers in our own home or community.

Here is the good part. It is simply a part of being human. The Torah is teaching us that everyone feels that way, no matter how confident they may be from time to time, or at least appear that way, and that a key to happiness is not total knowledge of each other, though I think we should take the time to take an interest in what our loved ones care about and share our thoughts and feelings as clearly and openly, and kindly as possible.

The Torah teaches us that key is to love each other and look out for each other and be patient with each other even when we do not understand each other, even when we feel like strangers. We should love each other, as Rabbi Yitz Greenberg would say, not despite our quirks and idiosyncrasies, but because of them. Others will love us because of ours, as well.

We are all strangers in a strange land. When we recognize this, then we can accept each other and ourselves with greater compassion and forgiveness. We can help each other with life’s scariest moments, and like our ancestors, we can help each other get through the hard times and look forward to the good ones.


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