Yachad board member, Daniel Reisel, reflects on the riots in Tel Aviv this week
At the heart of the Hebrew Bible we find a luminous, radiant, if familiar, phrase: Love the stranger, as you would yourself because you were strangers in the land of Egypt. This phrase contains a call to justice and empathy. As recent events in southern Tel Aviv have shown us, it is a call we are in urgent need of heeding.
Now, the plain reading of the phrase would be to say: because you were once slaves in Egypt, because you were once immigrants, it is natural for you to feel the vulnerability of those who are now displaced. Because you know what it was like to be there, you would be the first to defend, the first to champion and protect those who are now here.
History, however, tells us that more often than not, the opposite is true. More often than not, we repeat patterns of abuse. Following national trauma, a people can become insular and intolerant. The text knows that, left to ourselves, we, like every other people at every other time in history, have a tendency to do unto others the evil done unto us.
Why is this? Rashi, the medieval exegetical master, comments on this verse and he suggests a heart-stopping reason: ‘mum she-becha al ta’amer le-chaverecha – a blemish that you possess, don’t attribute it to your friend’ (Rashi on Vayikra 19:34). And Rashi explains: ‘keivan she-gerim hayitem, gnay hu lachem lehazkir – because you were slaves, it is a source of shame for you to be reminded of this’ (Rashi on Bava Metzia 59b).
What Rashi says is that because of our history, we are at greater risk of projecting unto others the traits we cannot accept in ourselves. So when the Torah calls on us to love the stranger, it does so not because it is natural for us to do so – but precisely because it isn’t. And for a simple reason: the stranger reminds us of our former, inferior selves.
It is not by chance that the riots in Tel Aviv this week were sparked in the poorest areas of the city. Those neighbourhoods are populated by recently arrived immigrants. They too have needs and legitimate demands. But we do ourselves no favours if we allow a reality to unfold, in which one generation’s pain is visited, however indirectly, on the next.
This is a responsibility we all share. What this suggests is that we need to do some serious work in order to become passionate and compassionate people. But how do we achieve it?
Pesach, which we have just completed, the last matzah crumbs finally swept up, is an institution without parallel in any religion. It is a elaborate re-enactment of history, a night of remembrance that enables us to work through the past, down to the minute details, the taste of the lechem oni, the bread of affliction, the salty tears, the bricks and the mortar.
Through intimate and animated collective recollection, Pesach enables us to achieve emotional distance from the humiliation of slavery. We remind ourselves in order to liberate ourselves. Our identification with the past therefore takes the sting out of any humiliation. Pesach enables us to own our past, and because of that, we become able to identify with people who are not yet free.
The most familiar paradigm of this kind of process is the story of Jacob. All his life, he moves about like a fugitive, a stranger, unable to find rest. Ironically, after stealing the birthright from his brother, it’s Jacob who becomes the stranger. Jacob, the supplanted supplanter.
Then, remarkably, he starts a process of wrestling with himself and with his past. Rich in ambiguity, the text describes how Jacob wrestles in the dark, refusing to yield. Who is the nameless, faceless shadow with whom he wrestles? More than anything he wrestles with his fear of his brother, Esau. And it proves wounding experience.
Yet, as dawn breaks, it’s the shadow that flees. Jacob becomes Israel, is able to cross the Yabbok river into the land of Israel and reach out and embrace his brother. Only after addressing the core wound of his being, the insult that fractured his life, was Jacob able to fulfil his birthright. Only after coming to terms with his own neglected shadow, was he able to become whole.
Today, Israel and the Jewish people face numerous challenges. In meeting those challenges, the ancient text of the Hebrew Bible offers us three insights that are relevant to our situation today.
First, we should remember that our past has equal power to blind us, or to bind us, to the needs of the stranger. We should take to heart the universal message of Pesach and transform our troubled history into principled and pragmatic action on behalf of those who are still not enjoying the full measure of freedom.
Second, we should learn from Jacob and the mirror his story provides. We should work together, within Israeli society and between Israel and the global Jewish world, to find the courage to confront our fears and our collective wounds.
And finally, we should remember that living up to our highest values is always going to hard. Reality will never quite live up to the dream of generations. Yet that precisely why the Bible repeats it over and over again. Because how we treat the stranger is the ultimate measure of who we are.