Abbie Hoffman, the Jewish radical activist of the 1960s, said, “I see Judaism as a way of life. Sticking up for the underdog. Being an outsider. A critic of society. The kid at the corner who says the emperor has no clothes on. The Prophet.”
Jews sometimes are considered the quintessential other, and here, even Hoffman, someone who was not necessarily entrenched in Jewish ideology, points to our outsider status as a defining characteristic.
Our otherness is not merely a cultural quirk or a result of our long, difficult history. It is written into our story.
In the opening verses of Genesis 12, God tells Abram to go out from his homeland to an unknown place that God will show him. He receives God’s blessing, and then, chapters later, receives yet another blessing in a vision. An aura of dread comes upon Abram as the sun is setting. In Genesis 15:13, God tells him, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.” But God assures Abram that, eventually, his people will live in freedom.
More than a premonition, God is foretelling a future fraught with the knowledge that this nascent people will perpetually be in exile. For the first time in our people’s narrative, we learn that this experience of being the outsider is an intrinsic part of our collective fate. But more important, this knowledge will shape the way we develop as a people, our values and purpose.
Of course, exile is not unique to the Jews, and we should never imagine we have cornered the market on otherness.
Still, otherness also brings us self-definition. One of my teachers, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, often asks what is different when a Jew enters the room. How do we change the conversation, what perspective do we bring to the table that is unique? He argues that not oppression, but this quality of exile in which we learn what it is to be the other, is central to our existence. “Exile is a gift that gives us the ability to cope with the uncertainties of life,” he says.
Our existential reality is one of exile, constantly adjusting and readjusting to the changes wrought by separation. We are separated at birth from the body in which we grew, followed by exile after exile throughout our lives.
At the start of Lech Lecha, Abram is sent out, away from his father’s house, and so we read those words and relive every leaving we have ever experienced. Seidler-Feller continues, “Exile is a corrective to deserved entitlement,” since intrinsic to the Jewish ethos is that nothing is taken for granted — especially our freedom. Abram’s children will be oppressed for 400 years, and when they emerge, that experience will travel with them in their bones throughout their history.
At Passover, it is not enough to retell the story of our slavery and liberation. We actually are to experience that story ourselves in the present moment. We ingest that history at almost every holiday — we consume our exile in the hamantaschen, the latke, matzah and foods dipped in our tears.
If there is anything we are supposed to remember as Jews, it is that when people are strangers in a strange land, it is our responsibility to raise them up. This mandate, this collective otherness, even if we haven’t personally been the victims of hatred or xenophobia, has driven us to be agents of social change. We just heard from the Prophet Isaiah on Yom Kippur that we are to free the oppressed, share our bread with the hungry and not oppress the laborer. Our state of perpetual exile requires us to stamp out injustice wherever we see it.
We have just begun anew the cycle of Torah. As we read our stories, may we challenge ourselves to constantly ask how these stories of our exile make us, every year, into the people who inherit these words with integrity. Let’s celebrate what we bring to the table.
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at email@example.com.