When I was asked to write these words about what is most important to me in my faith tradition I went immediately to the words from the book of Exodus: “Do not oppress the stranger, you know the soul of the stranger for you were strangers in Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
Such a powerful teaching and a refrain which is repeated almost more times than any other in the Torah. The call for compassionate treatment of those who are most vulnerable is at the heart of our sacred texts. The cry bursts forth from the pages of the Torah. More than the commandments teaching about faith, belief and praise of God, comes the command to care for the stranger. For the faith and love of God is demonstrated not predominantly through prayer but through our actions and behaviour in the world. We love God best when we turn to one another in kindness and compassion, when we notice the vulnerable and we hear the cry of the weak and those in need.
It is too easy in our world to be satisfied with the quick fix. We are looking for simple answers which can help us tick a box, check it off our list, and in some ways prayer can be that simple solution. But it is only a true prayer when it sends us back into the world to do the messy work of confronting the stains and problems in our societies, when we see the challenges and rise to meet them, when we notice the places where help is needed and we reach out in love and compassion. And the most vulnerable of all are the strangers – people who are different from us, those who are not the majority, who too often are pushed to the shadows.
Jewish tradition implores us to notice, to care and then to act. And we do so not merely because God tells us to, not because we are commanded but because we know, we understand, we have been there. We know what it is like to be separate, to be different, to stand apart and be vulnerable. We know what it is to have to rely on the kindness and compassion of others, we understand the fragility of existence and our precarious place in the world. And it is for that reason that we reach out, we extend our hands and our hearts to others. We are called upon to care for the stranger, the orphan and the widow because we know what it is like to be in their position, we know the soul of the stranger, we are connected, we are one.
It is an incredibly powerful teaching, reminding us to know from where we come, to remember our time in Egyptian slavery, when we were downtrodden, beaten and when we were “other”. We know what it is like, our souls remember because, according to this teaching, we know the soul of the stranger. And so we reach out. Just as we were saved, protected, shown kindness, we must do the same for others.
My Judaism then, is a religion of action. Prayer, reading our texts and sacred writings turn us back to one another, call us to act to shape the world of our prayers and dreams. There was once a debate between two rabbis who were trying to determine if when we pray we should look up to the heavens or down to the earth. One suggested that we need to look upwards, direct our prayers to God. The other suggested downwards – our prayer should lead us towards each other. Eventually they agreed that we must do both. We need to look to the heavens to be inspired by the vision, to help us see and create our dreams, and then we must turn towards the earth and make them a reality.
I hope that we can always be inspired by our sacred texts, teachings and prayer, to help to make this world a better, kinder, more gentle place for all.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio serves at Emanuel Synagogue in Woollahra.