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Having Yourselves Been Slaves in Egypt

One of the greatest challenges our ancestors faced after leaving Egypt was to find the appropriate way to use the experience of slavery and oppression to shape their political structures and social conscience. They needed to answer the question of how the memory of slavery and slaughter would be expressed in the life and culture of the Jewish people. As they forged a new society in the course of their wanderings from the borders of Egypt to the Land of Promise, under Moses' leadership and God's guidance, they needed to grapple with the horrendous experiences of slavery and slaughter, powerlessness and despair. The question that had to be answered was this: Would their bitter memories lead to a society built on anger and resentment or to one founded on compassion and concern?

We cannot diminish the seriousness of their task. The path they followed defined our distinctive Jewish value system, which stresses concern for the stranger because we remember that we were strangers in Egypt (Exodus 22:20; 22:9) and support for the vulnerable members of society because we know that God, who heard our cries in Egypt, pays heed to the cries of the poor and oppressed (22:21-26). The laws embedded in this week's portion, Parashat Mishpatim, the first of many formal lists of rules and regulations that we will read in the course of our yearly journey through the Torah, stress, explicitly and implicitly, that we are to cherish freedom, abhor oppression, and deal honestly and equitably with both those whom we love and those whom we hate. We are called upon to build a society that promotes individual responsibility and provides legal protections for all its members.

We are blessed by having received such an inheritance. As we view the world today, we see how memories of ancient offences, historical slights, deep-seated tribal and ethnic animosities, and racial and class oppression still direct the course of peoples and nations. The struggles in the Balkans, the slaughters in East Africa, conflicts in the former Soviet Union, strife in India and troubles all over the world demonstrate daily the manner in which the anger and resentment fed by memories of past suffering can bring on even greater suffering.

On the individual level, too, we see the adverse effects of suffering. We know how often victims of abuse grow up to be abusers. We see how frequently those who have struggled to make a way for themselves, show little compassion to those following behind them. All too often, the people cast away their recollections of their difficult past and imagine their present, more-privileged state is theirs by right and is to be guarded forever.

As Jews living just a half-century after the Holocaust, an experience at least as shattering as that of Egypt and far more painful to us because it is still part of our living memory, this question challenges us anew. We are still in the process of rebuilding Jewish life after the destruction of European Jewry. As we construct monuments and erect museums to the memory of the Holocaust, we need to ask ourselves if our memory of those dark days will turn us into another small angry people, or instead will we remain the proud descendants of ex-slaves who taught us and the world that suffering can also motivate us to compassion.

For us today, as it was for our ancestors in the desert, this is not a theoretical question. For our brothers and sisters in Israel, the way that the Jewish State deals with its non-Jewish citizens and the care that it gives to the poor and vulnerable in its midst will reveal the way the question is answered in our days. Although we cannot ignore the compelling political, social and economic pressures the State of Israel faces, we must remember that our biblical ancestors also confronted hostile neighbors, economic hardships, and the challenge of building a united nation from diverse tribes.

As American Jews, we find this question to be just as difficult. The way in which we answer it will influence our relations with fellow Jews in Israel and around the world and with our fellow Americans of all religious and ethnic heritages. We need to ask ourselves if we, as Jews, wish to become an isolated minority, struggling with and against other groups at home and abroad in a constant battle to preserve and enhance our own situation, or do we wish to build a national and world society in which all people receive the support and protection our Torah tells us they deserve.

This week we read: "You shall not oppress a stranger, because you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt" and this week we ask ourselves if we are still the same people as those who heard those words for the first time. Do we really remember what it was to be a stranger, to be oppressed, and to be downtrodden and do our memories enable us to respond to the cries of those oppressed today?
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah