Reb Mottel of Kalshin was a successful entrepreneur, who spoke fluent Polish and had connections with powerful ministers in the Polish government. It once happened that the Polish authorities in Warsaw planned to pass a law forcing the Jews to burn all sections of the Shulchan Aruch that dealt with civil and criminal law, forcing the Jews to settle matters in Polish courts and thus weakening the authority of their rabbis.
When word of this law reached the Jews, Reb Mottel was summoned to the study of Reb Yitzchak of Vorki. Reb Yitzchak asked him to meet with a certain powerful government official and to convince him to withdraw the bill before it became law.
Terrified, Reb Mottel protested: “Do you know what you are asking? This official is a madman, and his hatred of Jews knows no end. I have heard from others that he vows to kill anyone who goes to him with a request to alter his position on any legislation! To go to him with this is certain death for me, and he will not change his mind.”
Reb Yitzchak listened carefully and said, “When Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses, our Teacher) went to Pharaoh to demand that he free his Hebrew slaves, do you think he was unafraid?”
“No,” Reb Mottel said. “I am certain that he was afraid. Who would not be?”
“Exactly,” the rebbe said. “He was afraid Pharaoh would kill him and nothing good would come of his meeting. It is for this reason that God said to Moshe ‘Come to Pharaoh.’ (Exodus 9:1) ‘Come,’ not ‘go.’ God knew that Moshe was afraid, so God said ‘Come with Me to Pharaoh,’ reminding Moshe that God is always with him. It will be the same with you. If you go to him alone you are doomed, but if you come with God you will succeed.”
Reb Mottel’s fear melted, and he traveled to Warsaw unafraid. Indeed, so fearless and joyous was he during his meeting with the minister that the official could not summon even an ounce of anger, and he granted Reb Mottel’s request on the spot.
Shulchan Aruch (literally, “set table”): The standard code of Jewish law (halachah) written by Joseph Karo of Safed in the mid-sixteenth century.
Where does fear originate? There are some who claim we fear the unknown, but this is impossible. If something is truly unknown, how can we know to fear it? What we really fear is our projection of the known onto the future. We conjure up the worst fears of the past, impose them on the next moment, and respond to them accordingly. In so doing, however, we are responding not to what is, but to what we imagine.
God invites you to imagine differently. Whenever you confront an enemy, God calls to you, saying, “Come to Pharaoh.” One who says “come” invites you to be with that one. When God says, “Come to Pharaoh,” God is saying, “Come to Me through Pharaoh. Come to Me by engaging the enemy and seeing into the heart of the stranger, that you might find the same heart beating in you both.”
God commands us to “know the heart of a stranger” (Exodus 23:9) and to feel solidarity with the stranger, for you, too, know what it is to be a stranger. To know the stranger is to know the enemy. To know the enemy is to know your own heart. To know your own heart is to know that God is both self and stranger, friend and foe.
This knowing fills you with a deep and abiding courage and joy, and it is this joy that embraces the stranger and invites her or him to come to God through you.