My friend Rav Aryeh Bernstein recently put together a great event called SermonSlam in Jerusalem. I have been watching the videos online. The event was an amazing mash-up of a groovy spoken word poetry slam and a gevalt Tische. One video that really stood out to me was by the brilliant comedian Yisrael Campbell. You got to watch it:
He pointed out that most people we know in the Jewish community are complete aliens to the notion of being alienated. While our tradition talks about slavery, today we have no way of relating to that feeling of being a stranger. For a people that always talk about slavery we really do a horrible job in acting on behalf of the stanger.
In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about one of the 36 references to our mandate look out for the needs of the alien. There we read:
And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ( Exodus 23:9)
Empathy is the root of any ethical system. But if we lost a memory of being slaves how can we fulfill these commandments? Campbell points out that Jewish law did a great job creating law regarding the prohibition of eating milk and meat. Jewish law represents a code of conduct that helps sculpt an ethical life. What Campbell says in jest actually seems like an important plan of action. Why not spell out a code for how we treat the stranger?
Campbell says it so well, “I don’t know what Egypt is, but I know narrowness is and I know what slavery is.” Spelling out a code for how we treat the stranger would help open us up to live the right life. I have some ideas about how we might work on this project, who wants to help?