The truth is I have written and rewritten this Shabbat message too many times already. As a gunman ran loose in my neighborhood, the Shabbat message was “stay safe” and work towards wholeness and healing in our world. By the time I woke up this morning, the updated news is that a suspect allegedly responsible for two shootings has been arrested. I don’t feel better… just more aware how intense and out of control this week seemed to be…
“Oy, how is this our world?”, I think to myself. In looking for the silver lining, I recall that at least I had the chance to learn and teach torah with my 6th graders. Their superpower is that they can read torah and find the essential lessons in a way that seems so on point, pure and full of honesty.
I asked my 6th graders this week to sort through some of the 54 mitzvot of this week’s Torah portion and write about the one they think is the most important. Some of the big ones on the list are: “Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” “Don’t carry false rumors,” “Don’t align yourself with the guilty,” “If you lend money to the poor, you may not collect interest,” and their least favorite, “One who insults one’s father or mother shall be put to death."
The mitzvah that most resonated with my students is “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
Adolescents know quite a lot about how it feels to be “the stranger;” how it feels to be left out; how fearful it is to worry about being left out. Among many debated ideas, my students decided that once a person can truly understand and empathize with someone who is on the outside it is possible to build a just society. They decided that this concept needed to become one of the commandments so that when we filfill this mitzvah it brings us closer in truth to our community and to God’s hope for a just, kind society.
I think about the gunman and wonder if he was made to feel a stranger? Did someone ever turn their back on him or oppress him? Is his hatred a result of bad parenting and society not taking care of him? Is his hatred a result of being left out and forgotten?
“Oy, how is this our world?”...
I turn instead with intention back to the parsha and re-commit my energy to creating a community which is based on the verse that most speaks to my students. I turn with intention and hope to the Torah that can help us build a society and a world based on empathy and compassion. Based upon knowing what it’s like to be oppressed and left out, and the redemption of choosing to liberate and be inclusive. I pray that an intense week can end with light and give hope.
Rabbi Elissa Ben-Naim