I used to be the odd ball kid. (OK, to be fair, I’m still pretty weird). As a child I had high emotions all the time and struggled in large group settings. I was awkward and bookish and not very popular. I simply did not fit in with my peers for most of my life. It wasn’t until I went to college and then graduate school that I finally found a group of people I could connect with in an honest and open way. I felt as though I finally found a group of people where I fit in and understood what it was like to be part of a community. Of course maturing in age and experience probably helped some too. Unfortunately, even as an adult I’ve found that many of the people I grew up with still see me as who I used to be. No matter how much I have personally grown and changed, to some people I will always be that same strange kid, but in an adult body. If nothing else, it certainly has me hesitant about attending my 20-year reunion this year, even if it’s only on Zoom.
We all experience this to some degree as we grow and change throughout our lives. While our past genuinely does contribute to who we are as individuals today, we’re not who we used to be, and being reminded of our past, especially if it’s painful, can be devastating and destructive more than nostalgic.
Parshat Mishpatim, which we read this week, actually forbids dwelling on parts of a person’s past. The Israelites are on their way out of Egypt to Israel. They have begun to set up their own system of laws and rules, beginning last week with the Ten Commandments. This week, Parshat Mishpatim, focuses on interpersonal laws with regard to business. The main idea of this section of text is that we have the obligation to treat each other in business and in relationships as complete, equal human beings.
In chapter 22, verses 19-20 we read, “Whoever sacrifices to a god other than the Lord alone shall be proscribed. You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The word for stranger is ger, which is also used for someone who has converted. It was from these verses that the sages forbade belittling sincere converts by reminding them of their idol worshipping days.
The current version of who you are may appear quite different to those who knew you when. Similarly, people who only know us as adults may be surprised when they learn things about our former selves. The Torah reminds us not to hold on to who we used to be or to dwell on memories that no longer reflect reality, but to let the past go when necessary and support and welcome ourselves and others in the present.