“Remember You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt”

We are reminded of this fact in the Torah no fewer than 36 times. This week, we were again all reminded as we gathered around our seder tables. Despite the inevitable wine stains, laughter, and much, too much, good food, we reenacted the moment when we left Egypt for our own liberation. We raised a shank bone and commemorated that our ancestors had to mark their doors to acknowledge they were willing to risk revolution for a resolution to their misery. Our ancestors had to be willing to participate to be redeemed.

We are reminded throughout this week as we once again become strangers by bringing our lunch with egg, wheat, or gluten-free matzot to work. Tactilely and physically, we remind ourselves that we were once not free, but rather, slaves in Egypt. The holiday that inspires us to move from degradation to liberation also asks us to question what it means to be “the other” and to now be free. What are the responsibilities that come with freedom and with the profound history that led to our freedom? When we read, “Remember you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” what does that mean in our world, in our day, and in our lives?

The conversations I heard from my guests and my children at my own seder makes me think that these questions are as profound today as ever before. They broached subjects that fill our media, but more importantly, shape our lives: Race and “Black Lives Matter;” hatred and xenophobia that dominate our political culture; bigotry and ethnocentrism that color our immigration policy and cripple our very humanity. The rhetoric in the political world that claims, “We should build walls,” has done just that. America is more divided than it is united. As a result, there are real walls and we don’t talk to each other about our fears, our dreams, our hopes, or our problems. Because of our lack of honest dialogue, we have made each other into strangers. We don’t know the “other” so they become the “stranger” to us. The other has become the stranger and society says over and over that we are to hate the stranger!

Why should you not hate the stranger?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:

“It is terrifying in retrospect to grasp how seriously the Torah took the phenomenon of xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. It is as if the Torah were saying with the utmost clarity: reason is insufficient. Sympathy is inadequate. Only the force of history and memory is strong enough to form a counterweight to hate.

Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the color of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

The Passover season and the message of our experience serve not only to make us more compassionate, more understanding, and more empathetic, but to call us to act. I believe now more than ever that as Jews, as a Congregation, we should be actively engaged in interfaith dialogue. Why? So that we are not strangers to others and others are not strangers to us.

The robust interfaith dialogue of past decades has eroded, if you will, with a religious mercantilism. We have all turned inward. Now it is time to turn to one another. Each house of worship has built programs to ensure the continuity of their faith. Now, it is time to build bridges to ensure the continuity of God’s greater family. I believe such dialogue is desperately needed and that it will yield a better world.

On Friday, May 20, we have created such an opportunity to begin an open and honest dialogue. I have met with religious leaders in our nation’s capital and they agree that we need to rededicate ourselves to this work. Please join us for a night of interfaith prayer and a Dinner of Dialogue. We are calling this evening, “Faith over Fear: Choosing Unity over Extremism.” I will be joined by Bruce Feiler, Bishop Budde, Imam Abdul-Malik, Imam Magid, and members of their respective communities who are committed to such an opportunity. We will start with a brief service and then will engage in a meeting and greeting with the strangers amongst us in fellowship and through intense and open dialogue over dinner.

Our ancestors took a risk to ensure their freedom. They marked their doors and said, “I am willing to work for redemption.” On this night, join us as we stand to mark the doors of our generation, build the bridges that will negate the bigotry of our day, and ensure that we move from degradation to liberation once again.


Rabbi M. Bruce Lustig

Click here to register for “Faith over Fear: Choosing Unity over Extremism.”