A Spiritual Practice for Personal and Communal Healing
Why empathy and action for asylum seekers is a spiritual practice
During its first 80 years as a sizable minority in the United States (1900 – 1980) the American Jewish community featured prominently in the major social justice efforts of the century, from the labor movement to the New Deal to the civil rights movement. As a vulnerable minority the Jewish community identified with other vulnerable peoples and worked to reform the institutions of society to be more equitable and just to all people. As American Jews become more affluent and powerful will the community maintain its traditional commitment to social justice and particularly to the ethical treatment of vulnerable people? Individuals and communities that suffered oppression tend to respond in one of two ways once attaining power; they either empathize with vulnerable people or turn around and oppress vulnerable people. The Torah is particularly vocal on this subject, commanding 36 times that the newly empowered community treat the stranger ethically.
Many times this commandment is accompanied by the reminder that you, the Israelites were once strangers in another people’s land. This commandment is directed at a people that was once vulnerable but now is in a position of power in relation to vulnerable people in their own society. I believe that, through careful analysis of several instances of this commandment, we can reveal a process by which a newly powerful community can treat the vulnerable members of its society in an ethical manner. This process is very relevant for the Jewish communities of the United States and Israel. Like the Israelites coming out of Egypt and conquering their homeland, the Jewish communities of the U.S. and Israel are powerful, and only 50 to 100 years away from times of great oppression, whether the Holocaust or the turn of the 20th century Eastern European experience. These Jewish communities carry the psychological burden of oppression, yet exercise political, financial, social and in Israel’s case, military power. Absent a process of dealing with the transition from vulnerability to power, these communities are at risk of mistreating the vulnerable in their own societies. These texts suggest one process for dealing with this transition.
The first three instances of the mitzva not to oppress the stranger show up in Exodus 22, 23 and Leviticus 19. Here are the verses:
Exodus 22:20: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (The Hebrew for “wrong” connotes verbal abuse, or shame while the Hebrew for “oppress” connotes economic oppression.)
Exodus 23:9: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Again “oppress” connotes economic oppression while “know” is the Hebrew “Da’at” connoting an intimate familiarity).
Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.” (“Wrong” connotes verbal abuse or shame).
Why would the Torah mention this commandment so many times, each time bringing the reason, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt?” What is it about the Egypt experience that we shouldn’t oppress the stranger?
One common answer is that the slave experience gave us an extra empathy with slaves and vulnerable people. “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” therefore, you know what it is like to be oppressed and don’t oppress others.
A close analysis of the Gemarah’s comment on this verse, and an understanding of how Torah works as a legal text, will reveal that there must be another reason for this mitzvah.
How does the Gemarah understand the mitzvah not to oppress the stranger? In Baba Metzia 59b the Gemarah says that the reason Israel shouldn’t oppress the stranger is not because Israel should have extra sympathy for the stranger, but that Israel shouldn’t recall something negative about herself. The Gemarah says, “If you have a blemish, don’t call attention to someone else who has that same blemish.” The Israelites were strangers in Egypt. They shouldn’t degrade someone else for their stranger status because this just recalls Israel’s own vulnerable experience as strangers. It seems like the Gemarah is teaching us that for the sake of your own dignity, don’t oppress the stranger. The Gemarah also seems to assume that one who has a blemish will tend to point that blemish out in other people. Thus the warning not to follow this tendency.
This Gemarah points to another interesting way of understanding something deeper about this commandment. Many people assume that this commandment appears so frequently in the Torah because the Egypt experience made Israel so empathic with those who are vulnerable. However, this understanding doesn’t fit with one of the principles of interpreting the legal sections of the Torah. The Torah does not legislate the obvious. If it is so obvious that the Egypt experience produced empathy for the stranger among Israel, the Torah would not need to tell us 36 times not to oppress the stranger. Rather, the Torah must believe that with out all these warnings Israel certainly will oppress the stranger. We can understand the verse to say, “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” [and, thus, your natural inclination is indeed to oppress the stranger]. “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and people who were once vulnerable victims have a tendency to oppress vulnerable others once they achieve power. The Torah needs to repeat this commandment so many times because an oppressed people’s inclination to oppress the stranger is so strong. The commandment teaches Israel not to follow this powerful inclination and to treat its vulnerable with the dignity Israel did not receive in Egypt.
I believe that this verse and the next two verses teach a process through which an individual and a community can go through to heal from the psychological wounds left over from past oppression. The key to this process of healing is the ethical treatment of the vulnerable citizens in the now powerful community’s society.
Step one is to recognize that if you were formally a victim you have psychological scars that, unchecked, will most likely lead you to oppress others who are vulnerable once you have power. This is the Torah’s assumption. Therefore the first step toward healing is recognizing one’s potential for abuse.
The second verse instructs us how we can protect against acting out this past victimization and oppressing others.
Exodus 23:9: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The key new phrase in this verse is “you know the heart of the stranger.” The Hebrew “v’atem y’da’atem et nefesh ha’ger,” implies a deep, intimate “knowing” of the soul of the stranger. The word “da’at” implies consciousness, deep knowing. It implies knowing something in your heart and not just in your head. “Da’at” also implies relational knowledge. “Da’at” is how one person intimately knows another. This verse is telling Israel to remember your experience of being a stranger and a vulnerable person. It is where we are unconscious of our pain that we are vulnerable to act it out as oppression of the other. This oppression is motivated by our desire not to see something that reminds us of our weaker selves. We haven’t consciously dealt with the pain of our victim experience and therefore, we can’t stand to see this “mirror” of ourselves. We are abusive to those who are vulnerable in an attempt to get this reminder of our weak selves out of our view. Our unhealed wounds from prior oppression lead us to not be able to see the other’s vulnerability and pain. Seeing this pain is unbearable for us because we have not healed our own pain. We can’t stand to show empathy and give dignity because such behavior is a painful reminder of what we didn’t get when we were vulnerable victims. Economic oppression of the stranger also results from our past pain. By taking advantage of the vulnerable we put our role as the victim in the past. We falsely comfort ourselves that an oppressor of others must not be weak and vulnerable anymore.
The key to not falling into these negative behavioral patterns is “Da’at,” consciousness of your own pain. If the individual, or collective, can consciously face the stored up pain of past oppression and do the psychological healing needed, this individual or society will be much less likely to abuse others.
The third step is hinted at in the third verse.
Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
The key addition in this verse is, “you shall love him as yourself.” This third step is the final step needed in the healing process and involves giving full dignity (love) to one who reminds you of your vulnerability. It requires one to heal one’s own loss of dignity to give dignity to another. The Torah commands love in this verse like it does in the well-known verse, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” To love your fellow, you must love yourself. One can only treat a stranger with true dignity if oneself has dignity. This is the full healing of our oppressive experience because you must love yourself and give yourself dignity despite the past abuse you suffered or disgraceful things you did as a vulnerable person. When you can give love and dignity to yourself, you will be able to love the stranger. The commandment to love the stranger like yourself is an imperative to heal ourselves from wounds we incurred while vulnerable and oppressed.
The Gemarah tells us to treat ourselves with dignity and not shame ourselves by recalling our past indignity. We will only fully be able to do this after consciously facing the pain/disgrace and loving ourselves no matter what.
The mitzvah not to oppress the stranger is in fact a method for the complete healing of our own hurt as oppressed people and a step in the direction of being a powerful community able to build a just society in Israel and contribute to building such a society in our home communities throughout the world.