Do Not Oppress the Stranger
As my bar-mitzva parasha, Lech Lecha has always carried a special measure of meaning for me. It marks the beginning of Jewish history with a story of exile. “The Lord said to Abram, `Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you'”(Gen. 12:1). And so did the Schorsch family, millennia later in December of 1938 from Nazi Germany. I even bear the name of Abraham’s son Isaac, born in this same parasha. Yitzhak is a joyous name filled with hope and affirmation. It means “he shall laugh.” For Abraham, Yitzhak signified the capacity of having a child in old age in a strange land. For my parents, Yitzhak bespoke an act of defiance in dark times. Faith has the power to shape reality, as it is said of Abraham in our parasha: “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit” (Gen. 15:6). In short, my bar-mitzva in 1948, some eight years after we arrived in America, linked my life forever with Lech Lecha.
I offer this autobiographical fragment to make a point. For Jews, the Torah is not an inert text, waiting to be read quickly and dutifully. It is, rather, an equal partner in an extraordinary interactive discourse, what Martin Buber described as an “I-Thou” relationship. Confronted intensely, the Torah yields as much running commentary on our personal lives as we generate to illuminate its contents. To read it attentively is not only to enter the eternal dialogue between God and Israel, but to personalize it.
Abraham is instructed by God to do what we humans fear most, to be uprooted, to leave home and hearth for an unfamiliar destination. The midrash feels the depth of his anxiety. God needs to reassure Abraham that he will not end up alone and destitute. “I will make you a great nation” — i.e., you will have children. “And I will bless you” — i.e., you will find wealth. “I will make your name great” — i.e., you will become famous (Gen. 12:2).
The divine command casts Abraham in the role of outsider. He repudiates what has grown conventional, comfortable, and constricted. Monotheism challenges the fundamental tenets of Mesopotamian civilization. Abraham anticipates the fate of his progeny as eternal aliens, the vigilant critics of the societies in which they temporarily reside. To serve as a blessing for all nations means to see things independently and different from the margins of the body politic.
The midrash suggests that Abraham was actually expelled from his homeland. The command to leave did not come unannounced. He had long struggled to formulate a conception of God more in tune with reason, ethics, and existence than offered by the myths of paganism. His kidneys, the seat of wisdom for the ancients, taught him both secular and religious knowledge, that is, he was self-taught. He ridiculed the customers of his father’s idols and eventually smashed them all. His subversive theology soon attracted the concern of the king, who subjected Abraham to an ordeal which he, though not his brother Haran, survived. Only then did he finally hear God’s voice that it’s time to get out. The quest for truth had turned Abraham into a religious renegade as it would his descendants.
But the path to reestablishing himself in the land of Canaan is neither direct nor smooth. The Torah adds a detour that reveals an exquisite ethical touch. God is not prepared to let Abraham strike roots just yet. If indeed he is to create a model society based on compassion and justice, he needs first to experience what it means to live without either. It is for this reason that God seems to throw him a curve ball. While he will die and be buried in the promised land, not so his children. “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nations they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth” (Gen. 15:13-14). The pathos of this divine message is heightened by the fact that when it comes, Abraham stands unchallenged by anyone. He has just trounced a coalition of powerful foreign invaders, freeing his nephew Lot in the process, and the land lies before him for the taking.
And yet it is precisely at the moment of triumph and fruition that Abraham’s hand is stayed. Only the painful experience of injustice can guarantee a modicum of success in creating a just society. Not abstract doctrines of theology or political theory, but only prolonged suffering will generate both the wisdom and passion to reach for the ideal. The conquest of Canaan without Egyptian bondage would have yielded little that was new or edifying. It is no accident that the commandment repeated most often in the Torah is the injunction not to oppress the stranger, for it is a vision of society born in the misery of Egyptian deprivation. Ever since, we, Abraham’s children, have continued to dream of and struggle for an inclusive society without strangers or outsiders.
Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,