Helping others helps us remember our roots


Rabbi Noah Arnow


How many times have you heard the sermon about how, as Jews, we are commanded to remember and care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt? 

Sometimes, the goal is to urge action: “Remember that we as a people have suffering in our collective memory, and since we know how it feels, we should be more sensitive and should care and help other people and peoples.”  

I’ve given that sermon.  

Sometimes, it’s given in a somewhat self-congratulatory tone: “Of course, we as Jews are helping because we know what it’s like to have suffered.”  

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I’ve given this sermon, too.  

As I think about it, though, is there not something a little presumptuous and even arrogant about assuming I know what it feels like to suffer because my ancestors suffered, whether in 19th century Europe, or in pre-Exodus Egypt?  

In this week’s Torah portion, we have a restatement of this common commandment, but with a subtle change. After instructing us not to oppress the orphan, stranger or widow, we are told, “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and Adonai your God redeemed you from there; therefore do I command you to do this thing” (Dt. 24:18).   

The typical logic is reversed: Instead of the Exodus reminding us to help the vulnerable, helping the vulnerable is supposed to remind us of the Exodus.  

We should not oppress the stranger, the widow or the orphan, explains the 19th century Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (the “Netziv”) on this verse, in order to accustom and condition our hearts to remember the Exodus, when we suffered and sought mercy.  

This reading problematically views helping others not as an end in itself but rather as an instrumental and selfish act: My helping others will help remind me of when I suffered, and when God helped me. We should ideally help others for altruistic, not self-centered, reasons.  

This critique, though, is obvious, and I suspect that the Netziv, the rabbi of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva, had something deeper in mind.  What deficiency is his approach intended to remediate?  

In some sense, we are “good” at helping others. And we could be much, much better.  

Those of us who live with a fair measure of privilege may not be so good at knowing or remembering how vulnerability feels.  Once we are more or less safe and secure, it’s so easy to forget our past (and even our current or future) vulnerability. And it’s especially easy to forget the feeling of vulnerability, of needing help, after the passing of decades, centuries and generations.  

The Torah here isn’t demanding that we afflict ourselves in order to know suffering. But rather, the act of helping the oppressed should remind us of our own vulnerability, our own precarious existence, our blessings and life’s uncertainties. This can turn our hearts to the Source of Blessing, as well as to a deeper sense of gratitude.  

And the next time we have the opportunity to help someone vulnerable, perhaps we’ll do so with increased sensitivity, understanding and compassion, remembering more deeply our own hearts, our own history, and thus knowing better the heart of the stranger too. 

Rabbi Noah Arnow serves Kol Rinah and is a past president of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association, which coordinates the d’var Torah for the Jewish Light.