As usual, residents of the State of Israel are once again threatened by political unrest in the Middle East, which is escalating day by day. The Arab Spring is spreading across the Middle East like water pouring from a broken dam. Iran continues to build up its nuclear power, ignoring world pressure. Egypt is in turmoil, and Syria is on the edge of a complete political breakdown. All this can easily thrust Israel into an unprecedented military confrontation. Within Israel as well, strife and discord rock the country. Social unrest, discrimination of Ethiopians, scandals emerging in the highest ranks of government, Israeli “price tag” attacks even on our own army, degradation of women, and tension between the chareidi community and the secular population are today’s news items.
One wonders why the Jews, like no other people, throughout thousands of years of their history, were never able to develop into a stable, secure nation. They have had to deal with being few in number, being deprived of their homeland for nearly 2000 years, difficulties in living with each other, and a constant onslaught against their very existence—all unprecedented in world history. Even today, with the re-establishment of their commonwealth in the form of the State of Israel, with its mighty power and unparalleled accomplishments, the Jews remain a nation in a constant state of flux, never sure where the next day will take them, confronted with crisis after crisis.
This stands out as a major paradox, considering the nation’s remarkable capacity to be constantly on the brink of extinction and then to not only survive but to rejuvenate itself in a most powerful way. Historians and anthropologists are hard put to comprehend how this nation not only lives on but outlives its enemies, draws the world’s attention with its achievements, and contributes to mankind in a way totally out of any rational proportion to its numbers.
The quicksand on which all of Jewish history is built makes us wonder whether it is not essential to the very existence of the Jewish people.
One commandment, unlike any other in the Torah, is almost endlessly repeated and instructs the Jews to be concerned about the welfare of the stranger in their midst. According to one opinion in the Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b), this commandment is repeated 49 times in the Torah. Since no other commandment even comes close to such numerous repetitions, we must conclude that we are approaching the core of the mystery of Jews and Judaism.
Of great importance is the fact that Jews are asked to look after the stranger because of their own experience in the land of Egypt. “For you know how it feels to be a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Here we are confronted with a crucial aspect of Jewish moral imperative. The demand of what is seemingly the most important of all commandments, to care about the stranger, can only have sufficient authority when it is substantiated through the appeal to personal experience.
It indeed does not take much effort to realize that all of Jewish history is founded on strangerhood. Avraham, the initiator of Judaism, was called upon to become a stranger by leaving his home and country to find his Jewish identity. Early Jewish history relates the story of a nomad people who even after they reached their destination, the Jewish land, were compelled on numerous occasions to leave that land and live once again as strangers. They were forced to live for hundreds of years “in a land not their own,” namely Egypt, and it was under those circumstances that their identity was formed. It was only sporadically that Jews actually lived in their own homeland. Even the Jewish raison d’être, the Torah, was not given “at home” but in a desert, an existential experience of foreignhood. It is as if all of the Torah’s commandments, without exception, find their justification, meaning and fulfillment only once one knows and experiences what it means to be a stranger. “Recent” Jewish history, of the last nearly 2000 years, once again found Jews living as strangers in other people’s lands.
What the stranger lacks is security, a feeling of home and existential familiarity; paradoxically, it is this lack that creates the climate through which man can be sensitized to the plight of his fellow men. It leads to the realization that there can be moral hope only as long as man is somehow unsettled. Man’s quest for security will block his search for meaning and purpose, while his lack of security will impel his moral powers to unfold. It is clearly this fact which underlies the ongoing repetition of the commandment to look after the stranger “because you yourselves have been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
What this means is that for a nation to maintain sensitivity and concern about the condition of the “other,” it must continue to live in some form of strangerhood. It must never be fully secure and must constantly be aware of its own existential uncertainty. As such, the Jew is to be a stranger. It is only in that way that he can become a moral beam of light to the nations of the world, a mission which above anything else is the reason for his Jewishness. The Torah is a protest again humans feeling overly secure, since it is aware that the world will become a completely insecure place once people start to feel too much at home and consequently forget their fellow man.
The Jew will have to live between eternal existence and insecurity, even as he resides in his own homeland.
The great upheavals in recent Israeli-Jewish history, which deny the Jewish people stability and security, may well be a message for them to return to a much greater sensitivity towards the stranger and fellow man. Jews must realize that God fashioned them into a people of archetypal strangers, in order to enable them to live by the imperatives of the Torah. One needs to understand and internalize that nearly all problems in society are the result of seeing the other, including one’s own fellow Jew, as a stranger, an “other.” Most people do not perceive what it means to be a stranger and how far it extends, unless they themselves experience it on some level. “For a crowd is not company; and faces are but a gallery of pictures; and talk but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.” (“Of Friendship,” an essay by Francis Bacon.) Most men are alone, surrounded by many; and man suffers his most difficult moments when by himself, while standing in a crowd.
This awareness should become a bedrock of the future Jewish-Israeli society. To be an eternal nation while lacking definite security is the great paradox that makes a truly moral Jewish society possible. Still, once Jews create an inner awareness of their archetypal character as strangers and create a society in which the stranger, including the other Jewish foreigner, is fully cared for, the external threats that surround the Jews may diminish. The more the stranger is looked after, the less need there is for the Jewish people to experience strangerhood.
To put an end to the solitude of the other, one needs to feel oneself a stranger. Even God seems to be unable to exist in solitude and is therefore relentlessly in search of man as His companion.