Once again, residents of the State of Israel are threatened by political unrest, escalating with each passing day, in their neighboring countries of the Middle East. The Arab Spring is spreading across the region like water bursting through a 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 we Jews, throughout thousands of years of our history, were never able to develop into a stable, secure nation. We have had to deal with so many obstacles: being deprived of our homeland for nearly 2000 years; experiencing difficulties living with each other; being few in number; and being the target of a constant onslaught of accusations and calls challenging our very right to exist—all unparalleled in world history. Even today, after the re-establishment of our commonwealth, the State of Israel, with its mighty power and exceptional accomplishments, we remain a nation in a continuous state of uncertainty, never sure what the next day will bring, confronted with one crisis after another.
This emerges as a major paradox, considering the nation’s remarkable capacity to be constantly on the brink of extinction yet, to not only survive but to rejuvenate itself in a most powerful way. Historians and anthropologists are hard put to comprehend how we not only live on, but we outlive our enemies, draw the world’s attention with our achievements, and contribute to mankind in a manner that is significantly out of proportion to our numbers.
The shifting sands, on which all of Jewish history is based, make us wonder whether it is not, in fact, essential to the very existence of the Jewish people.
One commandment, unlike any other in the Torah, is almost endlessly repeated and instructs us to be concerned about the welfare of the stranger in our midst (1). According to one opinion in the Talmud (2), this commandment appears 49 times in the Torah. Since no other commandment even comes close to such numerous repetitions, we must conclude that we are looking at the core of the mystery of Jews and Judaism.
Of great importance is the fact that we are asked to look after the stranger because of our own experience in 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 by 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 foreigners. They were forced to live for hundreds of years “in a land that is not theirs” (3), 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 foreignerhood. It is as if all of the Torah’s commandments, without exception, find their meaning, justification and fulfillment only once one knows and experiences what it means to be a stranger. More recent Jewish history, of the last nearly 2000 years, once again found Jews living as foreigners in other people’s lands.
What the stranger lacks is security, a feeling of home and existential familiarity. Paradoxically, it is this deficiency that creates the climate in 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 obstruct his search for meaning and purpose, while his lack of security will impel the unfolding of his moral powers. It is clearly this fact that underlies the ongoing repetition of the commandment to look after the stranger “because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”
What this means is that for a nation to maintain sensitivity and concern for “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. Only in that way can he become a moral beam of light to the nations of the world, a mission that above anything else is the reason for his Jewishness. The Torah is a protest again humans feeling overly secure, for it is aware that the world will become a completely insecure place once people begin to feel too much at home and consequently forget their fellow man.
We Jews will have to walk the fine line between eternal existence and insecurity, even as we reside in our own homeland.
The upheavals in recent Israeli Jewish history, which deny the Jewish people stability and security, may well be a message 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 foreigners, in order to enable them to live by the imperatives of the Torah. We need to understand and internalize that nearly all problems in society result from seeing “the other,” including one’s own fellow Jew, as a stranger. Most people cannot 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” (4). Most men are alone, surrounded by many; and man suffers his most difficult moments when by himself, standing in a crowd.
This awareness should become the bedrock of future Israeli Jewish society. To be an eternal nation while lacking definite security is the great paradox that makes a truly moral Jewish society possible. Still, once we create an inner awareness of our archetypal character as foreigners, and create a society in which the stranger, including the other Jewish foreigner, is fully cared for, the external threats that surround us 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 another, one needs to feel oneself a stranger. Even God seems unable to exist in solitude; He is relentlessly in search of man as His companion.
1. See, for example, Shemot 23:9 – Do not oppress a stranger. You know how it feels to be a foreigner, because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.
2. Bava Metzia 59b.
3. Bereshit 15:13.
4. Francis Bacon: “Of Friendship,” an essay.