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Life is not fair

While we hate losing or not taking centre stage – I believe we should try it more often.

For nearly two years of my life, I helped run a Jewish summer camp and year-long youth movement – Liberal Jewish Youth –נוער ציוני רפורמי  Reform Zionist Youth. Part of the culture of that movement was the “LJY tie”  when playing games – that the מדרכים\ותcounselors would skillfully adjust the difficulty level of the game so that there would be no winners or losers. It was fun for the counsellors – but the חניכים\ותparticipants hated it. For them, more important than the joy of winning was the fairness of the contest.

As adults, we know that life is not fair – that there are ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ – and that people are born with certain traits which the world around us prefers.

This month is Black History Month, and Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. Skin colour and ability are two of the categories that our society has bias against. Please consider coming to the Black History Month concert at HBT, raising up the voices of black composers who are not well known today, but composed in the Classical and Romantic periods – performed by black artists today. Click here for details.

There is a beautiful and difficult teaching on this week’s Torah portion (Ex 22:20) by Nachmanides, who taught in the 1200s in Spain, which struggles with this idea:

כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים לא הוכשרו כל הגרים בעבור היותנו גרים בארץ זמן, ואין טעם שיהיו מובטחים לעולם בעבור כן.

ופירש רש”י כי הוא טעם ללא תונו אותו, יזהיר שלא תונה אותו בהונאת דברים, שאם הוניתו אף הוא יכל להונותך ולומר לך אף אתה מגרים באת, מום שבך אל תאמר לחברך.

ור”א אמר זכור כי גרים הייתם כמוהו. ואין בכל זה טעם בעיקר

: והנכון בעיני כי יאמר, לא תונה גר ולא תלחצנו ותחשבו שאין לו מציל מידך, כי אתה ידעת שהייתם גרים בארץ מצרים וראיתי את הלחץ אשר מצרים לוחצים אתכם ועשיתי בהם נקמה, כי אני רואה דמעת העשוקים אשר אין להם מנחם ומיד עושקיהם כח, ואני מציל כל אדם מיד חזק ממנו וכן האלמנה והיתום לא תענו כי אשמע צעקתם, שכל אלה אינם בוטחים בנפשם, ועלי יבטחו: ובפסוק האחר הוסיף טעם ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים (להלן כג ט) כלומר, ידעתם כי כל גר נפשו שפלה עליו והוא נאנח וצועק ועיניו תמיד אל ה’ וירחם עליו כאשר רחם עליכם, כמו שכתוב (לעיל ב כג) ויאנחו בני ישראל מן העבודה ויצעקו ותעל שועתם אל האלקים מן העבודה. כלומר לא בזכותם רק שרחם עליהם מן העבודה:

For you were strangers in the land of Egypt: Not all strangers are made fitting [for special treatment just] because we were strangers in [one] land for a time. And there is no reason that they should be assured [of this treatment] forever because of this.

And Rashi on Exodus 22:20 explained that it is the reason why “you should not oppress him with words […], for if you oppress him, he can oppress you [also] by saying to you, ‘You also come from strangers’ – [regarding] a blemish in you, do not speak about it in your fellow.”

And Rabbi Avraham (Ibn Ezra on Exodus 22:20) said, “Remember that you were strangers like him.” But there is no fundamental explanation in all this.

And that which is correct in my eyes is that when it states, “do not oppress the stranger and do not harry him,” you should think that he has no one to save him from your hand, since you know that you were strangers in the land of Egypt, and you saw the harrying that Egypt harried you and that I took vengeance for you, ‘since I see the tear of the oppressed who has no comforter and has no power from the hand of their oppressors’ and I save every person ‘from the hand of one stronger than he.’ And so [too], do not afflict the widow and the orphan, since I hear their cries. As all of these do not rely on themselves and [so] upon Me do they rely. And in a different verse, it adds another reason (Exodus 23:9), “and you know the soul of a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This is to say, you know that the soul of any stranger is lowly towards himself, and he sighs and cries, and his eyes are always to God – and He will have mercy upon him, as He had mercy upon you, as it is written (Exodus 2:23), “and the Children of Israel sighed from the work and they cried out, and their prayer ascended to God, from the work.” This is to say that not because of their merit [did God hear], but rather He had mercy upon them due to their [heavy] work.

The first section of this text points out how advantage and disadvantage are not universal. Being slaves in Egypt doesn’t necessarily mean that we are oppressed wherever we live. However, it does remind us that we need to be partners with God, lifting up voices and including voices that may otherwise not join the communal discourse. We win when there are no winners or losers, when we raise up other voices and celebrate them with our own.

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