Israel's Predicament and the Need to Be a Stranger
- Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo
- Feb 24, 2006
This stands out as a total paradox considering the nation’s remarkable capacity to be constantly at the brink of extinction and not only survive but rejuvenate itself in a most powerful way. Historians and anthropologists are hard put to comprehend how this nation not only survives but outlives its enemies, draws the attention of the world 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 this is not essential to the very existence of the Jewish people.
One commandment which is almost endlessly repeated—unlike others in the Torah—is the one telling 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 mentioned 49 times in the Torah. Since no other commandment comes even close to such numerous repetitions we must conclude that we are nearing the core of the mystery of the Jews and Judaism.
Of crucial importance is the fact that Jews are asked to look after the stranger on the basis 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 most crucial aspect of the Jewish moral imperative. The demand of seemingly the most important of all commandments 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 the existence of “strangerhood.” It is Avraham, the initiator of Judaism, who was called to become a stranger by leaving his home and country so as to find his Jewish identity. Early Jewish history is the story of a nomad people which, even after reaching its destination, the Jewish land, was on numerous occasions forced to leave that land and to continue once more as strangers. Jews were forced to live for hundreds of years “in a land not their own”, Egypt, and it is under these circumstances that their identity gets “gestalt”. It was only in sporadic moments that Jews actually lived in their own homeland. Even the Jewish raison d’etre, the Torah, was not given “at home” but in a desert, i.e. in an existential experience of “foreignhood”. It as if the Torah’s commandments, without exception, only find their justification, meaning and fulfillment once one knows and experiences what it means to be a stranger. “Recent” Jewish history of the last nearly 2000 years once more made Jews live as strangers in other people’s lands.
What the stranger lacks is security, a feeling of home and existential familiarity and paradoxically this lack creates the climate through which man is able to become sensitive to the plight of his fellow men. It is the realization that there can only be moral hope 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 him to unfold his moral powers. It is clear that it is 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 to keep a nation sensitive and concerned about the condition of the “other”, it must continue to live in some kind of “strangerhood” itself. 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 in that way that he is able to become a moral beam of light to the nations of the world which above anything else is the reason for his Jewishness. The Torah is a protest again human over-security since it is aware that the world will be 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 on the edge of eternal existence and insecurity, even while living in his own homeland.
The great upheavals in recent Israeli-Jewish history which denies the Jewish people stability and security may well be a divine message that it needs to return to a much greater sensitivity towards the stranger and fellowman. The nation must realize that God made it into a people of archetypal strangers, so as to make it capable to live by the imperatives of the Torah. One needs to be sensitive, not just to the non-Jewish stranger and the fellow Jew but above all to realize that nearly all problems in society are the result of seeing the other as a stranger/other. Social injustice and crime are the result of seeing the other as an outsider and most people do not perceive what it means to be a stranger and how far it extends. “For a crowd is not a company and faces are but a gallery of pictures and talk a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love” (Francis Bacon) Most men are alone surrounded by many and man suffers his most difficult moments by himself while standing in a crowd.
This awareness should become a major foundation for the future Jewish-Israeli society. To be an eternal nation while having a lack of definite security is the great paradox which makes a real Jewish moral society possible. Still, once Jews create an inner awareness of their archetypal condition as strangers and create a society in which the stranger is fully cared for, He may proportionally remove the external circumstances which surround us to make the Jews aware of that very mission. The more the stranger is looked after, the less there is a need for the Jewish people to experience “strangerhood”.
To put an end to the solitude of the other, one needs oneself to be somehow a stranger. Even God seems to be unable to exist in solitude and is therefore relentlessly in search of man as His companion.