Think back to the last time you felt out of place. Maybe it was your first day at a new job, or in a new shul. Perhaps it was when you went on holiday and realised your mastery of the native language wasn’t quite what you thought it was. Or possibly, it was somewhere where you shouldn’t have felt like a stranger at all- maybe you were among friends or family who are supposed to include you, and yet you still felt like the odd one out.
For me, I don’t need to go too far back to remember the last time I felt like a stranger. To tell the truth, I have spent my whole life battling with feeling like a black sheep, something which I have written about extensively in my articles about feeling unwanted. In many ways, being- or feeling like you are- unwanted and unloved is quite similar to being a stranger, and so this week’s Parsha, Mishpotim, speaks to me in a truly unique way.
In the past, I have been privileged to write and teach about Parshas Mishpotim, and each and every time I am equally taken aback by the verse, “You shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the feelings of a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim”. I don’t quite have the words to describe how much this means to me. The imperative to remember the slavery in Mitzrayim doesn’t just apply to the generation who were enslaved there: it applies to each and every one of us, for as we remember in the seder each year, it was not just our ancestors who were freed from slavery, but us ourselves and all the generations to follow. And in the context of this week’s Parsha, I truly believe that the reminder of slavery and the exodus is meant to teach us empathy. It’s one thing to tell a people not to oppress strangers, but it’s another to remind them that they, too, were strangers not so long ago, and have no right to treat anyone as if they’re inferior simply because they’re new or different.
If you’re having trouble envisaging slavery in Mitzrayim, just return to the example which sprung to mind in the first paragraph of this article. Remember that time you felt lost. Alone. Out of place. You, too, were a stranger, and you likely felt an uncertainty and pain, longing for someone to alleviate your suffering by extending the hand of friendship. And that’s exactly what the Torah is telling us to do, rather than allowing prejudice or self preservation to cloud our moral judgement and allow us to mistreat somebody simply because we can.
This isn’t the first time I’ve written about inclusion and welcoming strangers. Evidently, this topic hits close to home for me: but this time, I’d like to incorporate the teachings from the previous verses in Parshas Mishpotim. We are taught, “If you see the donkey of your enemy collapsing under its burden, and are inclined to desist from helping him, you shall surely help along with him”. For many of us today, this doesn’t immediately seem relevant, as we tend to live in big cities and are unlikely to encounter donkeys, but in fact it ties in closely with the teaching about the stranger.
Too many times, strangers are shunned due to fear and ignorance. We, as humans, naturally fear the unknown- that’s why so many are scared of the dark- but with this comes a common prejudice against people who are unlike us. We feel inclined to shut them out and make an enemy of them, and just like the man refusing to help his enemy’s donkey, we justify our refusal to help the stranger with our vilification of him. Too quickly, the stranger becomes the enemy and we have an excuse not to help him.
The Torah warns us that no matter our own personal fears and feelings, we are obliged to help another in need. After all, we have all been strangers at one time or another, and we owe it to those who helped us- and G-d Himself- to reach out to strangers and make friends, not enemies.