“Finding Home and Finding Empathy” by Lauren Shaps
Hey to the Chevra,
Last week our son, Rabbi Yoey Shaps, moved back to Ottawa with our wonderful daughter-in-law and our two delicious granddaughters. Truth be told, as our children moved, one after the other, to the United States for work and education, I didn’t really expect any of them to return to our small Jewish community in the capital of Canada. As a citizen, Yoey was able to return without any complications, but our daughter-in-law needed to immigrate, which led me to thinking about my own confusion around identity despite our 26 years in Canada.
When I'm in Canada, I feel like an American and when I'm in the States, I feel like a Canadian. When we became a Canadian citizens a number of years ago, I called my close friend to share the good news. My family had passed the citizenship exam and pledged our allegiance to the Queen of England. "Guess what?" I asked. "We're Canadian!" Her response was, "Mazel Tov. You may be Canadian, but you'll never be an Ottawan."
Of course she was just teasing me and I laughed along with her, but obviously her comment bugged me or I wouldn't remember it so many years later. Do I really care about being an Ottawan? Mostly not. That title is reserved for the few who were born and raised and continue to live in this beautiful city. I am quite proud of my varied experiences living in eight cities in five states and three countries. But what if she was teasing me about something more central to my identity, like my Judaism? What if I had not been born to Jewish parents but had chosen to be a Jew? A comment about that type of not truly belonging might have really touched a nerve.
As you are well aware we have a number of mitzvot, both do's and don'ts, related to the sensitivity with which we should aspire to treat others. We have a general commandment of "loving your neighbour as yourself," which requires us to think about how we would feel in the other person's circumstances and then treat them accordingly. We have a commandment to avoid words that cause pain to others. And in this week's parsha, Parashat Eikev, we are reminded about sensitivity to a person coming from an entirely different background who joins our community, our extended Jewish family. The Torah tells us, "You shall love the convert, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Devarim 10:19)
The commentaries ask, isn't a convert already included in the commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves? The Rambam, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), explains that we are given this additional and more specific mitzvah because of G-d's special love for the convert. That love is because of the huge commitment to living a Jewish life that a convert makes voluntarily.
Rabbi Uziel Milovsky, in his book, “Ner Uziel,” points out that there are many specific laws we should be mindful of in relating to a Jew by choice. We are required to think before speaking so as not to unintentionally hurt their feelings. We should not speak in a way that draws attention to their background nor make negative comments about gentiles or the community in which they were raised. The reality is that most people gravitate toward others who are similar. If we feel different from the convert, we may be less likely to reach out in friendship or to help when they are in a difficult situation. The Torah reminds us to work to overcome that natural response. Converts have left their parents and communities. They don't have the same options for people to spend Shabbat or holidays with. Their non-Jewish families doesn't know the in’s and out’s of a Jewish wedding or, G-d forbid, a Jewish funeral and shiva. The more a person needs our help, the more responsibility we have to be there for her.
I’ve written about the "narcissism of small differences," a phrase that sums up how easily we slide into our own space, unwilling or unable to see things through someone else's eyes. Insensitivity to converts is an example of a small difference that can cause much unnecessary pain.
The Torah gives us an important reason for why are we told to love the convert, "… because you were strangers in the land of Egypt." The Hebrew word for convert and for stranger is the same, ger. We know what it means to be excluded, to be oppressed for being different, to be the outsider, the alien, the stranger.
That message is part of our national psyche. It is based on the formative experience of the Jewish people. We recall our painful existence in our daily prayers, our Shabbat Kiddush and when we sit down as families at our Passover Seder. We say the words over and over and attempt to transmit that integral value from generation to generation. But we must hear with our ears what our mouths are saying, and internalize that message in our hearts so we will walk the talk. We must tap into a natural empathy that should be there for anyone who is different for any reason. This fundamental focus requires us to make every Jew a welcome member of our community, but especially a Jew who may always feel a bit like a stranger because they made the courageous decision to choose Judaism.