The heart of a stranger

by JordanB

I am teaching a course on Judaism to Presbyterians. In preparation, I was doing some reading on Passover, and was really struck by Exodus 23:9.

Do not oppress the stranger. You know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Passover is, of course, a political story as much as it is a religious story. In addition to being a story of a God who does miraculous deeds on behalf of his chosen people in fulfilment of a promise given 400+ years earlier, it is the story of the outcome of that miracle – the establishment of the people of Israel as a people group and as a nation.

We are, at our socio-biological heart, a tribalistic species. Our groups mark the boundaries of respect and responsibility. They tell us who we can trust, and who we can not trust. Nations, the contemporary manifestation of such groups, are notoriously self-serving. To their own inhabitants – life, liberty, and all the perks of belonging. To others – apathy at best, and annihilation at worst. At the national level, there is no greater good then national self-interest.

Suffering, deprivation and conflict easily strengthen those lines of demarcation. This is why persecution often has the unintended result of creating in marginalized groups a stronger identity rather than weaker one, and why persecution sometimes escalates to final solutions. One you have the tiger by the tail, you better finish the job.

On the day of liberation, then, this is why God made this point to Israel very clear – you are to be a group unlike any other group. If you are chosen, than ‘chosenness’ means not being defined by self-aggrandizement and self-concern, but by empathy and hospitality. Not by lines of separation, but by permeability and inclusion. Inclusion on what grounds? Israel knows the heart of a stranger. On that grounds, therefore, they are able to share in the alienation of all. Suffering, rather than being a wall against others, is a bridge to others. What a gift empathy is! By remembering your experience, you are able not only to think about other people with more grace and compassion, but you are able actually to enter into the experience of others.

Memories have short lives, however. That is why Passover is celebrated every year. That is why even the Jew who is “educated in all the ways of Torah” must still listen. “Redemption begins with remembering.” And what is redemption? Nothing short of the liberation of all. As long as there is still alienation, slavery, and spiritual dis-ease in the world, we must participate in redemption. Passover concludes with an open door. This is a radical, even absurd act, in a world of crime rates and anonymity. I can not defend such a gesture. Nor can I compel or convince anyone to adopt it. We are simply offered it as a possible way of being in the world. Opening, rather than closing. I believe that in that openness there is great promise and hope.