Remembering the Stranger

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One of the central ethical injunctions of the Torah is not to wrong or oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20). “…You know the feelings of the stranger,” says Exodus 23:9, “for you were strangers yourselves.” This repeated admonition represents a profound moral challenge that also lies at the heart of the Passover seder: we are called on to imagine and create a society in which we use our own past experiences of abuse as a compass for doing  justice rather than reproducing patterns of domination and subordination.

Interestingly, the wording of these verses in the Torah reflects a moment when the people of Israel have crossed over the line between slavery and freedom. You were strangers in the land of Egypt, but now you are a free people. Throughout the seder, we praise God for bringing us across this border—from slavery to freedom and bondage to redemption.

And yet we are never allowed to forget the experience of slavery at our roots. The text of the haggadah captures the doubleness of the Jewish situation—both redeemed and yet not free to leave slavery behind—in an especially complex and subtle way. As we begin to tell the story of the Exodus, we say, “This year we are slaves. Next year, may we all be free,” and as we close the seder, we say, “Next year in Jerusalem,” acknowledging that our redemption is not yet complete.

We could forget the past; indeed, maybe we would much prefer to bury the past, but we are forbidden to forget it lest we fail to implement its lessons. Unless we truly know ourselves as oppressed, the haggadah seems to say, we will not be able to regard ourselves as though we personally had gone forth from Egypt and therefore will not feel the necessity of opening our doors wide to all who are still oppressed and hungry today.

The great power and difficulty of the charge to remember that we were strangers even when we live in freedom becomes clear when we consider the countless ways in which individuals and nations fail in this obligation. The prophets’ railings against injustice make clear that even the near descendants of the ragtag group of slaves liberated from Egypt were no sooner firmly established in their own land than they began to oppress the weak and the powerless among them.

Posted on April 11, 2011

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