By Tami Weisman, Education Intern
“Cynthia and Lisa built a house for their puppies and I said can I play and they said no because I don’t have a puppy only I have a kitty.” This is the longest sentence that little, shy Clara has spoken in school to date. There is more to come. “They said I’m not their friend.” Clara hugs her tattered kitty and sniffs back her tears. “We said if she brings a Pound Puppy she can play,” Lisa explains. Nelson frowns. “Ben wouldn’t let me play. “Uh uh, it was Charlie, not me,” Ben argues. “He was the boss.”
If you are the teacher in this situation, what do you do? Do you make the kids play with each other? Do you let them tell each other no? Vivian Paley, a kindergarten teacher and author decided that, “You can’t say you can’t play.” She explains that rejection in play is the forerunner to all other rejections in life. So in her classroom, she has laid down this rule. “You can’t say you can’t play.” How might you teach about the feelings of rejection, feeling unwanted, or feeling like a stranger? How would you want your students to react to the situation? I think this week’s Torah portion gives us some insight about how we might do this.
In Parashat Mishpatim, it states:
וגר לא תלחץ ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
This law is different than the other laws that came before it. The other laws in Mishpatim are laid out rather “matter of factly.” For example, Exodus 21:37- When a person steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, that person shall pay five oxen for the ox and four sheep for the sheep. Another example, Exodus 22:27- You shall not revile God, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people. These laws are succinct and straightforward, characteristic of this law code. But after two chapters or so, God’s tone changes as God turns to advise the judges. Several important points are made: treat the needy like everyone else, ensure their judgments are correct, and avoid the temptation of bribes. And then, as the judges swallow these loaded phrases, God reminds them that they were strangers in the land of Egypt and should know the feelings of the stranger well. What? What do the feelings of the stranger have to do with the law to not oppress the stranger? Why does God include this rationale for the law? Why does God, all of a sudden, feel the need to explain?
On the one hand, it’s a law like any other. “You shall not oppress a stranger” is simple enough. But, on the other hand, this law is unlike any of the others. The rationale attached to this law comes with an ethical system, based on the emotional nature of the Israelites’ experience in Egypt. We assume that there is an ethical nature to the other laws because of their source, God, but we are not told explicitly why we should uphold them. God attaches this rationale to the law to underscore its’ purpose. The question that I wonder about it is, “Why?”
In her commentary on Exodus, Nechama Leibowitz comments on this verse. “The hate, persecution, and shame the individual or community experiences in the past do not act as a deterrent, preventing them from adopting the same attitude to those entrusted to their power, later on. The fact that ‘you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ is certainly no adequate motivation for not oppressing or troubling a stranger. On the contrary, how often do we find that the slave or exile who gains power and freedom, or anyone who harbors the memory of suffering to himself or his family, finds compensation for his former sufferings by giving free rein to his tyrannical instincts when he has the opportunity to seize power over others?” Leibowitz points out the potential for the cycle of abuse to repeat itself. For Leibowitz, God reminds the Israelites that they too have the ability to become oppressors, through repeating their previous misfortunes. Perhaps God is the ultimate psychologist and understands the human tendency to repeat what has been done in the past.
Leibowitz attributes this verse to Israel’s potential to repeat what was done to them in the past. The Mekhilta, on the other hand, depicts the Israelites as kindred spirits with the stranger. The rabbis write, “Beloved are the strangers. For in ever so many passages Scripture applies to them the same designations as it does to the Israelites. The Israelites are called ‘servants,’ as it is said: ‘For unto Me the children of Israel are servants.’ And so also the strangers are called, ‘servants,’ as it is said: ‘And to love the name of the Lord, to be His servants.’” The Israelites should not think that their experience makes them so different than anyone else. In fact, the Israelite and the stranger have more in common than differences that would set them apart. The midrash reminds us that the stranger is a lover and a friend of God. Therefore, shouldn’t we love the stranger too?
While the midrash reminds of us our similarities, Rashi also notes our similarities while he universalizes the Israelite hardship in Egypt. He tersely explains this phrase as, “You know how hard it is for him when people oppress him.” We know firsthand how terrible oppression feels. But these are not our feelings alone, Rashi highlights. The emotional nature of our hardship in Egypt impacts the life of the Israelites (me’ atah v’ad olam), from here on out. We are not allowed to have amnesia. I glean from Rashi how important it is to have empathy. We must act with empathy towards those in the world around us. Some would even say that this is the core premise of Judaism.
Vivian Paley employed the law, “You can’t say you can’t play,” in her classroom. One day in a class discussion about this idea, one of her students turned to her and asked, “ ‘Did you make up this rule, Ms. Paley, all by yourself?’” His question took her by surprise. “ ‘Well, no, I didn’t make it up, only the words themselves. The idea is very old, as old as the civilized world. You’ll find it in the Bible: “The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the homeborn among you.’ I complete the verse from Leviticus in a room that has grown quiet. The children seem intimidated by my response. ‘When I first read these lines, I didn’t think they applied to me. It’s not something you can figure out right away. You see, lately, I’ve come to understand that although we all begin school as strangers, some children never learn to feel at home, to feel they really belong. They are not made welcome enough.’”
As we recall our redemption from enslavement in Egypt, do we think about how it felt to be rejected in that land? God redeemed us, but who will redeem the next stranger in a land not their own? This verse from Mishpatim tells us that it must be us. Be empathetic, for you know well how you once felt as strangers in the land of Egypt. As we move forward, may we realize our own redemptive power and strive to always reach out to those strangers in our midst.