The period of the Omer represents our growing distance from bondage and our proximity toward autonomy.
During this liminal wandering space, we shed the skin of our slavery while maintaining the memory of our narrow existence in Egypt.
Even as we shed that slave mentality, it is impressed upon us that we must hold dear the memory that we were once strangers in a strange land.
What is the application of this memory?
How do we put into practice?
One of the lessons that our long sojourn in Egypt teaches us is that we must be kind to the stranger. We express our empathy to the oppressed minority because we have walked in their shoes. However, there is another side to this coin. As we move from bondage to autonomy, the Promised Land represents our future of being a free people, an autonomous nation. This comes at a price.
The Israelites learn in the desert the laws and systems that they will use to govern, they fight battles to conquer the land. The modern state of Israel can be seen to represent the same symbol of autonomy for a people that existed for so long as strangers in strange lands. We were strangers in Spain, Morocco, Germany and Poland. We were strangers in Russia and in France. We lived always with the knowledge that we were living on borrowed time, that the powerful majority could push us out when we became to numerous, too powerful, too noisome.
For some, this memory leads to a deep empathy with those who are pushed out of their lands. For others, it leads to a fierce protection of the land that provides the answer to this reality. For many of those protectors, in order for Jews to exist in the world as an autonomous people, Israel must remain Jewish. Are these reactions to the same memory in conflict with one another?
The success of the State of Israel has brought refugees into its borders – people who have been pushed out of their own lands by war, violence, conflict and poverty. How we approach these refugees serves as a measure of what our own memory of being strangers means to us.
Do we express our empathy, embrace them as we wish we were embraced when we were orphaned?
Or, do we bind together, protecting our borders for the sake of our own continued autonomy and our right to live in a land where we are not Other?
In this period of reflection, let us think about how our memories drive our actions – what we want to shed and what we want to hold dear as we make our ascent toward freedom.
Aki Yonekawa has the pleasure of living and working at the beautiful Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University where she runs educational programming for field trips, retreats and conferences. She came to Brandeis-Bardin in 2001 to work at Camp Alonim for a summer and has remained working at the campus in some capacity ever since. When she is not in Brandeis, CA, she teaches religious school, volunteers for LimmudLA, leads Birthright trips, and is working with a group of teenagers in the San Fernando Valley to develop a conference for local teens focusing on Muslim-Jewish dialogue. Aki is currently a candidate for an MBA in Non-Profit Management and an MA in Education at American Jewish University.