You shall not abuse a stranger and you shall not oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt. (Shemos 22:20)
And you shall not oppress him: If you abuse him then he too can abuse you and say to you, “You too came from strangers!” Do not accuse your friend of a flaw that you yourself possess. Any use of the term stranger refers to a person who was not born in that country but rather came from another country to sojourn there. (Rashi)
For some reason the Torah wants us to remember what it feels like to be a stranger. It is no accident then that the experience of exile is almost the most constant theme of our existence. The Prophet forecasted, “And they will know that I am HASHEM when I scatter them among the nations and disperse them over foreign lands.” (Ezekiel 12:15)
Leschzinsky records in “The Jewish Dispersion”: “When we scan the Diaspora of Jewry over the entire globe and throughout the entire civilized world, we are surprised to see that this Nation, which is almost the most ancient in the world, is in truth the youngest in terms of the land under its feet and the sky above its head. To be more exact: according to the land beneath its feet and the skies above its head.
As a result of the relentless persecutions and forced expulsions, most Jews are but recent newcomers to their respective lands of residence. Ninety percent of the Jewish People have lived in their new homes for no more than 50 or 60 years! The Jewish People are dispersed over 100 lands on all five continents.”
The story is told about a suburban Synagogue somewhere down south that sold its building of twenty years after a majority of its membership had married and moved out and “the neighborhood had changed”. With the funds they gained from the sale to a Baptist church they designed and built a new building many more miles away from the urban sprawl.
Twenty years later they were selling their Synagogue to the same Baptist church for the same reasons. While laying the groundwork for the new building the minister of the church approached the Rabbi and asked if could have some input on the building committee, anticipating that when that building would be sold to them again it should better match their specifications.
Perhaps the reason for all this is because as the Talmud says, “The Torah was only given to purify humanity.” The Torah wants us not to just pity or sympathize with others but to empathize and commiserate with strangers. When one is too long in a place the illusion of permanence sets in and we are left with an impression, “Born on third base and thinks he hit a triple”. Even the stranger must be wary of the intoxicating powers of the delusion- “Stole third base and thinks he hit a triple.”
The Chovos HaLevavos in the Chapter on Introspection offers thirty powerful points to ponder. Number thirty suggests that a person consider himself as if a stranger in a foreign land where the ruler has bestowed the mercy of his protection and provided for his daily sustenance. For this reason he is entirely dependant upon and beholden to this ruler. He obeys his laws with extra care and diligence and is fearful of and obedient to no one else. He is constantly thinking into and preparing for what he might need as he readies himself for that moment of departure he knows can arrive with little notice at any time.
It is not only for the benefit of relations between people that we retain the taste of temporality but it is also the soberest of realities to enhance that ultimate journey whenever it is that we are called to depart from this place. Perhaps that’s why when we comfort a mourner we say, “HaMokom, (Literally- “The Place” in reference to HASHEM) – that should comfort us amongst the mourners of Israel”, because only in the context of all contexts can you hope to truly make yourself- at home. Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Label Lam and Torah.org.