Sometimes you experience something so traumatic and horrible that you trivialize any subsequent suffering that you experience or see others going through. I see this behavior often in myself and in friends of mine who served in combat. Upon returning to civilian life and seeing people get upset or depressed about school, work or relationships it’s often difficult to relate, because to someone who’s gone through so much, these things seem like trivial matters. Is there really anything worth getting upset about when nobody is getting killed and you aren’t surrounded by danger and destruction? The problem is that it’s not right to trivialize anyone’s suffering. Ideally our own experiences of suffering should make us more sensitive and compassionate towards even the slightest suffering of others, regardless of whether or not it’s as bad as what we’ve been through. Instead, often times if we’ve suffered a great deal, our suffering blocks us from being able to have compassion towards people who are also suffering to a lesser extent than what we have suffered. We set a high standard for those who are deserving of our pity; only those who have suffered the same or worse things than us are worthy, anyone who falls short doesn’t even know how lucky they are.
We are commanded in the Torah in this week’s parsha (Vayikra 19:33-34) as well as in several other places, that we must be compassionate towards the stranger in our midst because we were strangers in Egypt. It’s clear that on a communal level the Torah demands of us to avoid falling into the trap of only sympathizing with those who have suffered as much as we have. We aren’t commanded not to treat the stranger as badly as we were treated in Egypt. We are commanded to love the stranger and to avoid causing him any suffering whatsoever. It would be unacceptable for us to justify only moderately mistreating a stranger in our midst by saying, ‘hey, these guys think they have it bad over here, they have no clue, nobody is outright enslaving them or throwing their children into rivers what’s the big deal.’ The Torah expects us to have a heightened sensitivity towards oppression of the strangers in our midst because of our experience in Egypt regardless of whether or not the situation is really comparable to our suffering in Egypt or whether we are oppressing the stranger as much as they did to us.
On Wednesday night at a Yom Hashoah ceremony the Deputy Chief of Staff of the IDF, Maj. General Yair Golan reminded the Israeli public of this crucial message from the Torah as it applies to us in our time. “The Holocaust” he said, “must lead us to reflect deeply about the responsibility of leadership, the quality of our society and to think on a fundamental level about how we treat the stranger, the widow and the orphan and those similar to them.” He went on to say that he observes in Israeli society today, developments like those which appeared in Europe, particularly in Germany, in the years leading up to the Holocaust such as the buddings of intolerance, hate and self-destructive moral decay. We need to introspect on days like Yom Hashoah and discuss how to uproot those buddings from our midst. In his speech, Maj. Gen. Golan was echoing the exact message that the Torah is trying to tell us in this week’s parsha namely to be careful not to cause strangers to suffer in your midst because you yourself have once suffered as a stranger in a foreign land.
I’m proud that the second highest ranking IDF general has the moral fortitude to publicly ask the Israeli people to do what they can to uproot the hate and intolerance of strangers from our society. From the price tag attacks, whether it be the high profile murders of Mohammad Abu Khdeir and the Dawabshe family to the hundreds of lower profile attacks, to the mobs chanting “Death to Arabs” on Yom Yerushalaim or to how Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers or “infiltrators” are treated here, we need to deal with this issue. It’s possible to discuss exactly how widespread the oppression of strangers is in our country is but the fact that it does exist here is undeniable. Wherever oppression does exist and whenever we encounter it we must do all that we can to eradicate it, especially because of the ultimate form of oppression that we the Jewish people experienced ourselves during the Holocaust.
Maj. General Golan beautifully concluded his speech with the following remarks: “On Yom Hashoah we come together and remember the six million of our people who were slaughtered on European soil, we must remember those six million and the half million survivors who live here, and to ask ourselves what is the purpose of our return to our land, what should we be sanctifying and what not, what should we be raising on our banner and what not, and most importantly, how to actualize our destiny and to become a light unto the nations and to be a model society for the world. Only this type of remembrance has the power to serve as a living, breathing monument to our people – a worthy monument, a true monument. Isaiah the Prophet said: “A living person, a living person he shall thank you” (Isaiah 38:19) – We should learn to live lives worthy of the memory of the victims and of the generations to come. We should be grateful for the good that we have merited, and we should be worthy of safeguarding it, to fight until the end, if need be, against any oppressive enemy, for our right to build, and our duty to cling to good.”