By Rabbi Label Lam
Do not offend a stranger (verbally) and do not oppress him (financially)
because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Shemos 22:20)
Because you were strangers: If you hurt him with words he can say to you
that you also come from strangers. “Do not tease friend about a blemish that
you- yourself possess!” A stranger is someone who was not born in that
country but rather came from a different country to live there. (Rashi)
It sounds a little odd that we should not put down a stranger is because
the same thing could be said about us! Is that a worthy reason? Don’t do it
because it’s offensive! It’s wrong! That’s all! Do we need a justification
at all? Why then are we reminded that we were strangers in Egypt as a reason
not to speak hurtful words to a stranger?
It could be that we might even have a stronger subconscious tendency to
look down on someone that reminds us of our own weakness or vulnerability.
Perhaps that’s what Rashi means but maybe there’s another purpose to those
words, “because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
One of my boys, when he was in grade school, was being picked on daily. We
wanted badly to champion his cause but he refused to identify the
instigators. The administration and Rebbe were consulted. Attempts were made
to squelch it. Nothing changed. The poor kid came home in tears every day.
We all know the remedy. Kids who pick on others only do it when they sense
that they are getting a reaction. There’s a tendency to want to tell a child
(or an adult) “Don’t let them bother you!” Unfortunately it rarely works. If
someone tells you not to think about pink elephants suddenly they are
dancing even more in your head. He was in pain and we were frustrated. What
were we to do?
With help from heaven I stumbled upon a practical approach. At first I sat
with my boy and asked him what they had been saying about him that made him
feel so tortured. The words bled out slowly, “dummy-head”, “cookoo”,
“stinky” and stuff like that. I wrote down each on a piece of paper and
tried to logically dispute the veracity of their claims. I soon realized
though, that I was talking to the head when it was the heart that hurt. Then
in I put my money where their mouths were and I gave him three dollars- one
for each false utterance. I now had his undivided attention. I asked him to
please do me a favor and write down each insulting phrase they say tomorrow
and that I would pay him a dollar for every one. I even gave him a special
pad of paper and a pen for the occasion.
Well, the next day he came home with a long face covered with sadness. I was
curious to see the paper. Empty! He reported that nobody teased him today.
It worked! Once they realized that not only was he not poised to be hurt by
their words and that he was happily awaiting them their thrill was ended and
so they ceased.
Now that it was finally over, I didn’t want to lose this precious parental
opportunity to crown the episode with a lasting lesson. This was the
teachable moment! I felt it necessary to tell my son the following which he
accepted with unusual depth and sensitivity, “Now that you know what it
feels like to be picked on you should make certain not to do it to anybody
else. If there is ever a kid who is different or isolated or is for whatever
odd reason a candidate for being picked on you should make it your business
to befriend or defend him. With that in mind, son, maybe this whole messy
episode will have been worthwhile!”
It could be that our struggles and even our most suffering situations, just
like being in Egypt, can be converted into super assets. How so? In English
there’s a difference between the words, “sympathy” and “empathy”.
“Sympathy” is a remote feeling of pity while “empathy” is a feeling of
identification with another’s pain. Maybe it’s a strategy to keep from
feeling superior to the stranger amongst us to consciously recall our
vulnerabilities and realize teachable moments.
DvarTorah, Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and Torah.org.