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Do Not Oppress The Stranger

By Joel M. Hoffman

“Do not oppress the stranger,” the Bible warns us over and over again, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The saga of the Jewish people is to know what it’s like not to fit in, which is why this notion of welcoming the stranger defines Judaism as much as any other central precept.

The English word “stranger” offers us additional insight into what the Bible is talking about, because our word is nicely ambiguous. A “stranger” is someone from another place, but, equally, “stranger” is “more than just strange.” And of course that’s why being from another place is so hard. When you go somewhere new, you think everyone else is strange, and they all think you are. Visitors wonder at our customs just as we wonder at theirs.

So we learn not only that we shouldn’t oppress the stranger, but equally that we shouldn’t oppress people who are strange.

It’s important, for being from a foreign place is only one way of being strange. There are many others. In fact, Scott Dunn teaches that anyone who lives honestly in the world is perceived as a little bit strange. People wear odd clothes, walk crooked, have funny body shapes, listen to bizarre music, say strange things, have silly habits, and on and on. Are we careful not to oppress them?

I know a student with what she calls — having been told to call it so by her doctor — ADD. I understand the ‘A.’ It stands for “attention.” I even understand the first ‘D,’ which stands for “deficit.” She has an attention deficit, which is a not-so-polite way of saying she has trouble paying attention to one thing at a time. A nicer way to explain her situation would be that she can focus on more than one thing at a time, a skill that helps her notice connections that others often miss, and a quality that makes her a consistently interesting interlocutor.

As bad as the first ‘D’ is, though, it’s the second that really troubles me. It stands for “disorder.” What happened to “do not oppress”? When we classify people’s thinking — their natural way of being in the world — as a “disorder,” haven’t we pretty much destroyed any hope of welcoming them?

To be sure, some behaviors and conditions are more conducive to happiness and success than others. Just as I wear eye glasses so I can see better, attention deficit should be dealt with (if possible) when it stands in the way of a person’s goals. By the same reasoning, life-threatening obesity should be managed. And obsessive-compulsive behavior — normally called obsessive-compulsive disorder, once again making it hard to welcome those with the condition — can be a curious quirk or a debilitating disease, and in the latter case treatment seems like a good idea.

But whatever the nature of the oddity, Judaism expressly forbids negative name calling. We are all strange in our own way, and words like “disorder” have no place in our holy community. We can recognize our differences — and even note that some differences are advantageous or disadvantageous — without stacking people up in a hierarchy of normalcy.

This message is a cornerstone of our school. “No one fails Judaism,” Rabbi Manny Gold teaches, “but if we’re not careful, Judaism can fail them.” Part of my job as Director of Education is to make sure that our school welcomes whoever walks through our doors, even though some students will seem strange. After all, we’re all strange. Some of us just hide it better than others.

Purim arrives this month. It’s a holiday that freely mixes silly masquerading with serious messages. It’s also a time when we all practice being strange and, if we’re really doing things right, practice welcoming those who are strange.

“Do not oppress the stranger,” we are taught. This year, let’s use our Purim partying and seemingly frivolous merrymaking as a mental reminder not to oppress the stranger, the strangest, or even the merely strange.

Categories: education, spirituality
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