This month, Jews in Detroit and around the world celebrated receipt of the Torah, reaffirming a contract our ancestors made to remember and keep its teachings. We did this in a variety of ways — reading the Ten Commandments in synagogue, eating dairy treats at home (I still don’t get that one) and studying deep into the night. I did all those things, but my mind was also focused somewhere else. This year, I thought about the people of Gaza.
Your eyes are already rolling. Here comes another snowflake preaching modern notions of social justice and privilege to a region that plays by a much older, harsher ruleset. Hey, I get it. I’m a millennial, born and raised in America. While Mr. Rogers was telling me I was special, Israelis were experiencing waves of suicide bombings.
Yet the values that compel us to relate to the suffering of Palestinians are not “New Age.” Millennia before Western culture embraced values of toleration, the Torah implored us not to oppress the stranger (Exodus 23:9), not to cheat the stranger (22:20), and even to love the stranger (Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19). We must do this because the Torah reminds us — again and again and again — “You were a stranger in the land of Egypt.”
In essence, Jews are commanded to have empathy. (It’s worth noting the Hebrew word for “stranger” is often translated as “convert.” Yet, in these instances, the Torah uses that same word, ger, to refer to Israelites in Egypt, who are never described as converting to Pharaonic worship).
Commandments that are repeated tend to be the most important. Also, perhaps, the most tempting to forget or ignore. (Which is why, for instance, speed limits are posted at regular intervals.)
Empathy for strangers — particularly for those strangers — doesn’t come easily. Not for me, anyway. I am a Zionist from a long line of Zionists who dreamed of and fought for a Jewish state. Even as images of wounded and dead Palestinians poured onto screens, arguments in favor of Israel came to me as naturally as breathing: The demonstrations were orchestrated by Hamas; some of those killed were armed; every state has a right to defend its borders; armies around the world show far less restraint; Israel left Gaza and got rockets and tunnels in return. I can even quote passages from Torah that condone and, in some cases, command the killing of enemies. Again, this empathy isn’t easy.
The contradictions and complexities, however, are not an excuse to shrug and walk away. Torah is not in heaven (Deuteronomy, 30:12). So, this Shavuot, I grappled with how the Torah obligates us to the strangers in our land today. Does the blockade of 1.9 million people constitute oppression of the stranger? What is it like to be one of those strangers? To be so bereft of hope, you’ll walk into a line of fire? I don’t have the answers, and I’m not even sure how to think through them, but we should all, in effort to accept the Torah in its entirety, try to feel them.
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David Zenlea is an editor at Road & Track and a member of the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, where he’s been the primary Torah reader the last two years.