[Delivered at Congregation Emanu-el, January 2022]
Whether or not you are Jewish, sometime in your life you must have felt that feeling of not belonging, or not feeling welcome. Maybe it was your first day at your new school, or you just got hired for a new job and everyone there knows everyone else, except for you. Welcoming a stranger into your life, whether for several years, or just a moment, is still important as you wouldn’t want others to feel the same way you did.
I chose the Torah portion, exodus 23:9. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” How I interpreted it was, do not take someone down, do not, look down on them in any way, just because you don’t know them. You don’t know what their life is like, where they came from, or how they got here, so don’t judge them from what you don’t know.
As I was looking for my portion to give a speech on, I was reading, and then I came across the verse about how we treat strangers, in other words, my verse. It stuck out to me for some weird reason. In my old school, there were multiple people I knew, and became friends with, that were bullied, because people didn’t know that much about them. These kids transferred in 3rd or 4th grade, instead of kindergarten like everybody else. A handful of children I knew would bully them. It amazed me because, not only were we 10, but close friends would do this too. Not all of my friends, but a few. I didn’t think that these people I had known for so long were capable of being so unwelcoming. The kids that were being picked on, they were picked on because of where they came from, how they talked, their current situation, things that people shouldn’t be judged on. I became friends with these kids, as they were in my class, and we only had 30 kids in our class. I didn’t know what to do, so I tried to respect these kids and not talk bad about them. Since my friends were the only people I hung out with, when they were with me, I didn’t know how to stick up for the bullied kids. So I just rolled with it. Looking back on it, it seems obvious that it was wrong. We didn’t have a fully developed set of morals. I should’ve said something in the moment when I was with them, but I didn’t. However, when I wasn’t with my friends, If I saw one of the new kids in the grocery store, I said hi, and so did my parents. If we passed by each other in the halls, I would say hi, their name, smile or wave. Eventually we became good friends, and I’m thankful to have them in my life, when I did.
Rabbi Dara Frimmer stated that the reason the Torah has us not oppress strangers, is because this is how we have always been. Jews have always been kind to strangers. “From the very beginning, our tradition has commanded us to build a just and compassionate society. It’s taught us how to recognize and restore the dignity that is afforded to all human beings, especially the most marginalized. How to protest corruption and deceit. How to speak truth to power. This is who we are. We’ve been resisting tyrants since Pharaoh.”
Another religious comentator, Richard Gavantin also states that, ‘Clearly, this message is central to Judiasm, and the message is how we should treat minorities and other groups since we know what it is like to be a slave in Egypt.’
This passage I have laid before you today, if not just a suggestion that God set out for us to “hopefully follow”. It is important for everyone to follow, however not everyone does. God didn’t set these rules out for us to break them, God set them out for us to welcome others as our own. And that’s why I’m asking myself and all of us here today to try and be just a little kinder to strangers.