How would you feel? That is a question asked by a wide-ranging group of
inquisitors ranging from kindergarten teachers chiding their immature
charges, to philosophy professors lecturing to disciples about the worlds
of the theoretical. Its validity sets the tone from issues that vary from
the golden rule to admonitions at the supper table. And at first glance it
seems that the Torah uses the maxim to mitigate a deficiency in our very
own human nature.
"Do not taunt or oppress a ger (newcomer) because you were strangers in the
land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:20). According to most commentators, the verse
refers to the ger -- a convert to Judaism. Others comment however, that it
also applies to any newcomer, be it to a neighborhood, a synagogue, or a
school. Rashi explains that the Torah forewarns the Jewish nation from
being cocky toward anyone who would join our people. "After all," Rashi
expounds, "the stranger can easily remind us of our since-forgotten
experience in Egypt, where we, too, were strangers."
However, something bothers me. The Torah's set of values is pure and
unmitigated by personal partiality. So let us ask. Does it truly matter
that we were once strangers? Is not it inherently wrong to taunt a
newcomer? Shouldn't the Torah just say, "Do not taunt a newcomer? It is
morally wrong!" Why is there even a mention of our Egyptian experience?
Had we gone directly from Jacob's home to a settled life in the land of
Israel, would we then be allowed to taunt newcomers? Of course not! Our
years of servitude should not influence the morality of taunting others!
So why does the Torah consider our bad experience a factor?
Dr. Norman Blumenthal has published extensively about the unique experience
of Holocaust survivors' children. Without revealing actual details, he
related a case history of a young man whose father had escaped from a Nazi
concentration camp at the age of 16 years old. The fugitive did not hide
in the forest or in a barn, rather he joined a group of gentile partisans.
For the duration of the war, he lived with them, ate with them, and killed
Nazis with them. Still, the courageous young man never gave up his
convictions and feelings of Judaism.
On that day his father, by then a very successful executive who was very
active in the American Jewish community, turned to him and said. "Son, now
the easy life is over. Just like me, now you must learn what it takes to
survive amongst the gentiles!" He sent the young teen to a university in
the southern part of the United States where Jews were as rare as snow.
Within months, the young man, mercilessly taunted in a foreign environment,
suffered a nervous breakdown. It took years of therapy to undo the shambles.
Perhaps we can understand the posuk in a new homiletic light. The sages
declare that our experience in Egypt was very necessary, albeit
uncomfortable, one to say the least. Under the duress of affliction we
fortified our faith. Under the pressure of ridicule we cemented our
resolve. Under the strain of duress we built families and sustained our
identity. And perhaps it was that experience that laid the ability to
endure far-reaching suffering, tests of faith that were only surpassed by
the tests of time.
And now enter the convert John Doe who hails from a corporate office in
West Virginia and has made a conscious, comfortable decision to join the
ranks of Moses' men. Our first reaction may just be to have him bear the
test of the Jew. Like bootcamp in Fort Bragg, or beasting at West Point,
we may have the urge even a compulsion to put Mr. Doe through the rigors
of our oppression. After all, that is the stuff of which we are made. We
may want to taunt and tease because "we were slaves in a foreign land." The
Torah tells us not to do so. "Do not taunt or oppress a ger (newcomer)
because you were strangers in a he land of Egypt." Do not impose your
difficult experiences in life on others that are newcomers to your present
situation. It is easy to say, "such men are made from sterner stuff" and
proceed to harangue those who would join us. That should not be. Life has
a personal trainer for every individual, and each soul has a particular
program mapped out by the Almighty. Jews from birth may have had to suffer
in Egypt, while converts have other issues to deal with. One's particular
experience may not be fodder for the next person. Do not use your
encounters as the standard for the entire world. One cannot view the world
from the rear view mirror of his personal experience.
Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
Dedicted by Marcia Raicus in loving memory of her parents
Eugene Raicus, M.D. Yehoshua ben Moshe
Suzanne Raicus -- Tzeitel bas Moshe