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Friday, January 24, 2014

Mishpatim: The Stranger is YOU!

One summer when my son was in middle school, my husband and I agreed to send him to a two-week sports camp held on the grounds of a New England prep school. He was thrilled to go, but he had never before been away from us other than for an occasional sleepover, so we wondered how he would adjust.

We didn't have long to wonder. David didn't have cell phone back then, but he did have a calling card, and at around eleven o'clock each night he would leave his room and find a phone to call us, imploring us to come get him. He couldn't sleep; the bed was uncomfortable; the room was too hot; his roommate's breathing was too loud; he wanted to come home.

He sounded panicked, as though he didn't even know who he was anymore. He couldn't understand why he hated a camp that should have been exciting and fun.

I can still hear his voice when I think about this week's Torah portion, Mishpatim. For the most part, Mishpatim is little more than a list, a dispassionate rundown of laws that God for the Jewish people. But ironically, this dry portion includes one of the most haunting and evocative pronouncements in the Torah.

That pronouncement: "You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt."

With these words, God is urging the Israelites to treat outsiders with empathy. They are to remember how it felt to be stranger, and to let the memory of that unhappy feeling guide their behavior. But I'm struck by the implication that being an outsider is a universally familiar experience. We try so hard throughout our lives to connect with people -- building communities, joining groups, developing friendships, searching for "soulmates" -- but in the end, as God says, each one of us knows "the feelings of the stranger."

Middle schoolers in particular spend a lot of time feeling like strangers. They leave the familiarity of elementary school while they are still young, they enter new classes with new teachers as often as every quarter, they join new teams and clubs, and encounter new faces continually. They often take on unfamiliar and grown-up responsibilities -- earning their own money by baby-sitting or shoveling snow, taking charge of a house key, deciding whether to meet with a teacher for extra help before a test day.

And don't forget -- they are also strangers in their own bodies. Doctors say that physically, middle schoolers are changing more quickly than they will at any other stage of life other than infancy.

These days, middle schoolers are trained to do just what God demands of the Jewish people -- put themselves in other kids' shoes and behave accordingly. Many schools have a formal empathy curriculum, with guest speakers, reading assignments, and structured discussions.

But are kids equally equipped for the times when they feel like strangers to themselves? Do they know how to talk about it and work through it? Do they have ways to cope?

David eventually got through those long nights at the sports camp, and one of the most important outcomes was that he learned a little about who he was. He knows now that he's the kind of person who takes time to adjust to new situations. He's since gone away further from home and for longer periods of time, but he knows what to expect. And he always remembers to pack his ipod and earphones, an issue of his favorite sports magazine, and a booklight, which will help him cope with those first few nights.

When he leaves home, my husband and I always remind him that he has faced long, lonely nights before, and he's made it through.

Just like God reminded the Jews.

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