Yasher koach to Lauren Feiges for this d’var from her bat mitzvah on Feb. 9, 2013.
How do you feel when you are stopped at a red light, and a person who is homeless asks you for money? Do you get annoyed? Do you feel guilty? Do you feel indifferent? Or are you just numb?
Unlike many other torah portions, my portion Mishpatim did not have a story. It listed many laws, such as you are not to take bribes, you are not to spread rumors, you shall respect your parents, and the ever so famous eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. But one particular law stood out to me. It stated, “You shall not wrong nor oppress the stranger, for you were once slaves in the land of Egypt.” My interpretation of this law is that we are not to look down or turn our backs on the stranger, because we can easily be in their place. A stranger is someone you think you have no connection with; although deep down inside the person you may consider a stranger is just like you. Put another way, the stranger is us.
Great commentator Rashi once said; “You know the feelings of a stranger- How painful it is for him when you oppress him” What I think Rashi means is that we shouldn’t label people, or prejudge them. This year my mitzvah project brought me face to face with people in need. Some people needed food, some people needed a roof over their heads, and some people just needed company. My experience made me realize that children living in a shelter are just regular kids. That a person who is homeless is still gracious and thankful for a meal I have just given them. That the people in nursing homes, who need assistance with simple everyday tasks, can still tell a good joke. And through all of these experiences, I really wanted to help these people as much as possible, but I had a fear of reaching out to them and opening myself up to them because I thought they were strangers. Through my contact with them, I quickly learned they weren’t, and I found myself feeling less sorry for them and more connected to the people they were on inside.
Everyone has a purpose in life, and we should recognize a purpose in everyone. This brings me back to my point of not forgetting the so called “stranger”. We all have to remember to reach out and make the stranger once again recognizable, even though it is true that there are a lot of people that need our help; more than any one person can provide. But the next time you are stopped at a red light and see someone asking for help, try this. See them as people without a label. Take out the word homeless. When we do this, we are making our community once again whole by eliminating the stranger. We are all becoming stronger and better people from the inside out. Shabbat Shalom everyone.