Treatment of the Stranger

Our existential relationship to our ancestors and how we learn empathy.

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Moses has set us up well. With this shrewd rhetorical strategy, he has urged us to harness the imaginative effort that empathy requires, training us in the mechanism for satisfying the Torah's exhortations on the stranger. Just as we have transported ourselves past time’s boundaries to inhabit our enslaved ancestors, so too can we transport ourselves past the boundaries of ethnicity, nation, means and tongue that separate us from the contemporary stranger. The "slide of identification" can thus be understood as a practice-run, through which Moses' audience limbers up to the imaginative exertions that our duties to the stranger demand.

Becoming Empathetic

But it is not only empathy's mechanism of imaginative engagement that is revealed in Moses' generational elision. The elision further helps us understand that empathy is work, that there is something awkward and uncomfortable about its habit. We must be schooled in its compulsory nature no less than 36 times, tutored in its essentialness through the heuristic of self-deception: "It was you who were a slave; it is you who knows the heart of a stranger." Moses' elision thus helps us internalize that empathy is not always and already there, burrowed inside like a jack-in-the-box, awaiting an opening to spring forth. It is rather an iterative effort that demands rehearsal and repetition.

And so too with us, modern Jews in a global world, who may take up the fight against the oppression of the world’s strangers--in lands not our own, on behalf of people facing trials so alien from ours; we cannot rely on an axiomatic claim that we understand the stranger's plight because we, too, were strangers in Egypt. We know this claim to be untrue; or at least, we know that this claim reflects a truth in need of tending.

How then do we maintain the psychological muscle that Moses’ generational slide helped to build? How do we stave off its atrophy?

We can take a cue from Moses, who at the end of his life finally speaks freely to his people, telling them "their" story through his own and those of their forebears. To engage the empathic muscle, we too should immerse ourselves in stories. We should seek out the tales of the oppressed stranger, read her literature, ferret out her testimony. We should find ways to see her face when she speaks--through film, through lectures, through travel. We should train ourselves to pick out those igniting details from dry reports of facts, figures, troop movements, and aid shipments.

And when that empathic muscle is flexed, our imaginations gripped, we should charge ourselves with the knowledge that for Moses we will never--and should never--cease being the strangers of his story.

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.