It all stems from this week, you know. The whole “how to treat other people” thing comes straight from this week of Passover. We were slaves. We were redeemed from slavery. We have to remember what that was like, to be in a strange land, and to remember how we were treated, and …..Don’t Do That To Anyone Else Ever Again.
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. I am Adonai our God.” (Lev. 19:33-34)
This comes from this week’s parasha, Kedoshim. It’s known as the “Holiness Code.” It’s interesting to note that the “Holiness Code” isn’t focused on the Holy of Holies, the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wildnerness, where the goings-on are known only to the priests. The parasha marks a major turning point in the whole book of Yayikra (Leviticus). We move from rules about how to behave in the Tabernacle to how to behave in our society. We spend the rest of the book not talking about distinctions between pigeons and rams, but between honorable behavior and dishonorable behavior. Between honest weights in business and dishonest weights. And all because, we were strangers in Egypt and now we’re not, and Adonai is our God, the One who freed us from the land of Egypt. The two ideas are inextricably linked. In fact, the text sets it up at the beginning of this parasha: “You shall be holy because I Adonai your God, am holy” (Lev. 19:2) God says, “Look – I took you out of slavery, so you should know what it’s like to be enslaved. I didn’t like it when you were slaves, and if you are to be holy like Me, you’re not going to like it when others are enslaved, especially by you. Got it?”
This week, many of us sat around a Seder table, telling the story. There are almost 2000 different kinds of Haggadot (plural of Haggadah) on the market. The experience of liberation is looked at from almost 2000 different perspectives, not including our own personal ones. But at its core, this is a story of taking our national history and making it our guide for how to live in this world with others.
Kedoshim isn’t telling us how to handle our personal business because it’s personal. It’s because for Kedoshim, for Torah, for Jewish life, how we live our personal lives is the way we build our communal lives. When someone is living among us as a “stranger” that person is vulnerable. Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) said we can’t wrong the stranger because our power is so much greater than his. “He is in your land, under your authority.”
We say each year that we each should feel as if we personally went out from Egypt, and how we live every day since stems from that experience. The way we treat others in our community who are not from our community is the way we live holy lives. This is true, whether it’s Israel or Chicago. This is true whether we’re the stranger or the strangee, but especially if we’re the strangee. This is true whether we were the first to come to this land, or the most recent. This is simply true, and it all stems from this week of Passover. And it gets really, really hard to keep remembering this.
But that’s why we have Passover and Torah and the Holiness Code. That’s why we read over and over about how we know what it was like to live in a narrow, squeezed, hard-to-breathe-free place. So we never, ever make anyone else live that way, either. Period.