Condoleezza Rice joined 150 students and alumni for Shabbat dinner at Chabad House at Stanford University on April 19. The original plan was for Rice to speak for a half-hour to the students. Instead, she spoke and interacted with the crowd for three hours.
Throughout the evening, Rice emphasized that a person can rise above his or her past to create a better future. Growing up in segregated Birmingham, Ala., she experienced firsthand the ugly effects of racism. But she overcame those challenges to become the first female African American secretary of state, and one of the most influential women on the global stage.
“Prejudice and bigotry,” she said, “are brought down by the sheer force of determination of individuals to succeed and the refusal of a human being to let prejudice define the parameters of the possible.”
What struck me was not only the power of her story, but also its connection to the Exodus story. When the Israelites are released from Egyptian slavery, the Bible commands, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Because you were in Egypt and felt the pain of abuse, learn from it not to oppress the stranger, the orphan or the widow. You experienced injustice, therefore practice justice. You know what it is like to be a slave, therefore do not enslave others. You have been hated, therefore now love your neighbor.
Certainly, the Israelites could have derived an entirely different lesson from their slavery experience. Having suffered so much, they easily could have felt compelled to inflict suffering on others, as has happened so many times in history. Their motto could have become: “Do unto others before they do unto you.”
Indeed, according to the philosopher Hegel, the experience of slavery naturally gives rise to a culture of resentment and victimhood. Similarly, we know the parents most likely to abuse their children are those who were themselves abused when young.
But the Torah takes the opposite approach to
suffering, calling on us to transcend victimhood, to use suffering as a springboard for good. From a hurtful experience, learn to give reassurance and comfort when another needs it.
The Passover seder, a paradigm for Jewish education, opens with these words: “This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat with us.” Thus, the holiday of freedom begins when we teach our children to transform affliction into concern for and sharing with others.
In 1909, a woman in Manhattan named Henrietta Szold learned that the man she loved for years and planned to marry had gone off and married a younger woman he had just met. Szold was no longer young and knew she would not find a husband. A lesser woman in her situation might have withdrawn from the world, immersed in self-pity or anger.
Instead of wallowing in despair, Szold channeled her unrequited love into good deeds, founding Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, which over the course of decades inspired millions of Jewish women to perform great deeds of love, including saving the lives of children in Nazi-occupied Europe and founding one of the world’s leading medical centers in Jerusalem.
Unable to find a man with whom to share her love or heal her wounded soul, and unwilling to see that tremendous love go to waste, she built a worldwide organization to dispense love and healing. When she died, she was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem; her gravestone reads, “Mother of Thousands.”
Henrietta tasted the bread of affliction and rejection, but she stayed resilient and said, whoever is in need, I will help. I will bring blessing into the world.
To be a Jew is to rise above defeat, to heal where others harm, to fix where others destroy, to redeem pain by turning its negative energies to good. That is how we become partners with God in building a world that ought to be.
Rabbi Dov Greenberg is the executive director of the Chabad House at Stanford.