Treatment of the Stranger
Our existential relationship to our ancestors and how we learn empathy.
This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
As the Israelites are poised to enter Canaan in Parashat Va’et'hanan, Moses finally finds his tongue and speaks at length with his people, instructing them on his legacy. Central to Moses’ oration is the insistence that the events of his life have unfurled before the people’s "own eyes."
As Moses retells it, his audience’s presence was essential to the covenant at Sinai: "The Lord your God sealed a covenant with us at Horeb. Not with our ancestors did the Lord seal this covenant but with us--we who are here today, all of us alive." And with reference to the miracles of the Exodus, Moses declaims: "You yourself were shown to know that the Lord is God[.]" (Deuteronomy 4:3; 5:3; 4:35).
Moses' insistence, however, is more fiction than fact. For the most part, his audience was not present at Sinai or the Exodus. The generation to which he speaks was born in the desert, to parents now buried beneath its sands. And it was those parents who saw the revelation at Sinai, who trod the dry depths of the split sea.
This peculiar misidentification--what commentator Robert Alter calls a "slide of identification between one generation and another" --cannot be understood as the slip of an old, addled mind. Instead, I would proffer that this "slide" is an exceptionally powerful means of laying the experiential foundation for the Torah’s core injunction against oppression of the stranger.
But We Weren't There!
Mentioned no fewer than 36 times throughout Scripture, the Torah’s exhortations on the treatment of the stranger often appear with a companion explanation: Heed the stranger’s treatment because "you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9). But this explanation, like Moses' feint, is premised on a sleight-of-hand. Our forebears were enslaved in Egypt, but we--their far-distant progeny--were not.
Moses' generational slide begs to be interpreted less as a faithful description of historical fact and more as a normative charge to the nation. Through the frisson of misidentification, the desert generation--and we, Moses' further-future audience--are implored to reach past the boundaries of self and become the witnesses whom the great leader invokes. We are goaded into taking on the existential reality of our enslaved ancestors.
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