Saturday, April 16, 2011

Acharei Mot: For you were dwellers in the land of Egypt

Acharei Mot: For you were dwellers in the land of Egypt
By Solly Kane

This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, includes a commandment that is particularly relevant and timely as we prepare for Pesach: “You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt” (Leviticus 18:3).

The practices we strive to avoid – terrible labor and living conditions and slavery among them – are obvious to us as we retell the story of the Exodus. However, the Torah takes this commandment a step further at four other points in the text, saying: “For you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” to guide our treatment of others.
This teaching is used in commandments to not wrong nor oppress a stranger in general (Exodus 22:20), or in a judicial sense (Exodus 23:9). It also serves as the reasoning for the instruction, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34) and for the commandment to “Love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

The Hebrew for stranger, ger, used throughout the Torah, has a deeper meaning. Gercomes from the root which means “to live”, or “to dwell.” So when the Torah commands us to “love the ger,” it could be better translated as a commandment to love the dweller, or one who lives in your land, not just the “stranger,” which has negative connotations.

As Reform Jews we take the commandment to welcome the dweller seriously. For example, our Movement is proud of our deep involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, where our efforts to secure equal rights for African Americans were a perfect example of our commitment to the dweller, rather than the stranger. Our commitment to supporting the rights of the dweller has continued for the last fifty years, manifesting itself in different ways: the fight for equal pay for women, the struggle for equality in the workplace for the LGBT community, and of course our ongoing effort for equal rights for progressive Jews in Israel.

Last month this fight manifested itself in a new way. The House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee held a hearing titled, “The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response.” The hearing singled out one community – one group of dwellers – for Congressional investigation, failing to acknowledge that the Muslim community was in fact frequently the source for tips to law enforcement that prevented terrorist attacks, and the fact that only a tiny number of the millions of Muslims in America have engaged in radical activity.

The hearing was an affront to all four of the commandments mentioned earlier about the stranger: oppressing the American-Muslim community in the public eye and in government proceedings, and failing to love and accept our fellow citizens. The Religious Action Center submitted testimony for the Congressional record voicing our objection to the singling out of one community for Congressional scrutiny and expressing a desire for future hearings to instead investigate radicalism in general, rather than focusing on one group.

Sadly, this hearing was not an isolated incident. It reflects what appears to be a growing trend of hostility to Muslims in the United States – such as Koran burning in Florida and damage done to a Mosque construction site in Tennessee.

Each of these reminds us of the importance of strengthening ties with those who dwell in our communities. The Reform Movement has a strong commitment to Muslim-Jewish dialogue, and we have strong working partnerships with Muslim organizations in Washington D.C. and around the country. Over one hundred Reform congregations are participating in the URJ’s Muslim-Jewish dialogue program, leading the way in their communities to open up these lines of communication.

In our Reform prayer book Mishkan T’fillah there is a line prior to the Mi Chamochah that stands out to me every time I pray. “Wherever we go,” it reads, “it is eternally Egypt.” We are challenged as Reform Jews to live up to our obligation to recognize when the laws or practices of the country we are in are not in line with the values of humanity. And when we see such instances, it is our obligation to act to ensure these practices do not continue and we do not copy the practices that were abhorrent to us in Egypt.

As we approach Pesach, may the commandment “to not copy the practices of the land of Egypt” guide our work of social justice and welcoming those with whom we share the land in which we dwell.

Solly Kane is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He is originally from St. Louis Park, Minnesota (Bet Shalom Congregation) and is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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