The Stranger You Know

Social connections are important to the quality of one’s life.  As the saying goes, it’s not about what you know but who you know. This adage has been proven true in many settings. When personal connections are absent, life is more precarious.

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In Parshat Shemot, the first parsha of the Torah’s second book, we are told that “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Shemot 1:8). Without a personal connection, the new Pharaoh has no appreciation for the person who saved Egypt from starvation. In a similar vein, this new Pharaoh has no regard for the foreigners who live among the Egyptian people. Joseph and his descendants were not merely strangers but “other.”

Interestingly, the name “Joseph” is formed from the same Hebrew root letters as the verb to gather or to take in. The verse seems to tell us that not only did Pharaoh not know Joseph, but also that Pharaoh did not know how to take in the “other.” This new Pharaoh neither wanted to be inclusive of or even know the others in his land.

I was reminded of another story of a powerful leader in Egypt. In 1219, toward the end of the Crusades, there was a meeting between St. Francis of Assisi and Malek al-Kamil, the sultan of Egypt. The monk and the ruler had a conversation under the tent of the sultan that left both men completely transformed. 

Source: “Saint Francis and the Sultan” by Giotto di Bondone

Source: “Saint Francis and the Sultan” by Giotto di Bondone

Impressed by the friar’s message of peace, the sultan sought an end to the fighting with the Crusaders.  Inspired by the regular prayer of the Muslims, including their meditation on the 99 names of God, St. Francis returned home to urge reform of Christian religious practices modeled after his encounter with Muslim customs. Each man took the initiative to know the other and take in their truths and their rectitude.

Personal relationships, both casual and consequential, have the potential for positive impact. Social interactions approached with an open mindset expands our ability to see a different perspective and gain a new understanding.

When we view the stranger as “the other,” we may be hostile, acting out of ignorance and fear. When we take time to know the stranger, we enrich our world with kindness and shared wisdom. 

Rabbi Evan J. Krame