An older member of a congregation suffered the death of his wife of close to 60 years. As he and his family observed shiva, the seven-day period of mourning, a teenager entered the man’s house. She came over to the man and his children and grandchildren, offered her hand in condolence, and in a soft voice said, “I am so sorry.” Retreating to the back of the room, she prayed during the minyan service and then quietly slipped out.
After the service, the granddaughter of the deceased turned to her grandfather and asked, “Who was that? I don’t recognize her.” The old man shrugged his shoulders and said, “One of the kids from the Temple, I think.” During the entire period of mourning, the image of the teenage girl offering her hand in condolence brought a smile to the old man’s face. Through her presence, the teenager acknowledged the elderly man’s loss and pain. Here she was – one human being seeing the spark of the Holy in a complete stranger.
Stranger. Hearing the word often leads us to conjure up in our minds an image of someone exotic, someone unlike us, someone foreign, someone coming to our synagogue or town or state or nation for nefarious reasons, someone to fear or hate or distrust, or someone who should just go back home. Rarely do we think of someone who contains the spark of the Holy.
And yet, “the stranger” is the category of individuals mentioned in the Torah for special treatment more than any others. We read: There shall be one law for the citizen and the stranger who dwells among you. You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger. You shall not pick your vineyard bare or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself. Hear out your fellow, and decide justly between any person and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You must befriend the stranger. Every third year bring out the full tithe of your yield and share it with the … stranger. You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger. These are just some of the examples.
The stranger in the Torah, called the ger, encompasses many different people. First, the ger refers the Israelites from the time when they were enslaved – strangers as it were – in Egypt. I’ll return to this reference to the ger a few moments.
The ger also refers to the one who resides with the Israelites without becoming an Israelite – specifically called the ger toshav. This ger is very much like our many non-Jewish family members who are a part of the Temple Beth Jacob community.
A third ger in Torah is the person who officially joins the Israelite nation – today this is someone who converts to Judaism. As we are forbidden to make distinctions between born Jews and converts, this category of ger is best left for Biblical times.
A fourth and final ger in the Torah is a person from outside the Israelite community who does not join with the Israelite people, either through conversion or residence – someone like Moses’ father-in-law, a Midianite priest. Today, this would be a person from another nation or religion. Some of these people join with us when we host a Shabbat learning service at which many from Concord’s different faith communities attend. Others are here with us this morning, as guests of our members or simply friends of TBJ.
The commandments related to how we treat the stranger are the most often cited in Torah. They appear thirty-six times, double chai, or double eighteen. Some even say the number is forty-six, not thirty-six.
I’ll stick with double chai, as eighteen is the number that represents the Hebrew word for life – and thus we might say, bestowing kindness on the stranger – the person who is different – is one of the most life affirming actions we can undertake. It enhances two lives, which is why the commandment appears thirty-six, and not simply eighteen times – the life of the stranger and the life of the person who acts with kindness toward the stranger.
Emily Dickenson, in a few short words, reminds us that this life-affirming act in how we treat the stranger reverberates into how we relate to the Divine. She writes:
These Strangers, in a foreign World,
Protection asked of me –
Befriend them, lest Yourself in Heaven
Be found a Refugee –
That the Torah contains more laws dealing with the protection of the stranger than with any other subject, including honoring God or observing Shabbat is of tremendous significance. Obviously, for the biblical legislator, concern for the stranger was considered a religious value of supreme importance.
Very often, when we read Torah laws about the treatment of the stranger, we are told, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Many of the commandments add the words, “for you know the feelings of a stranger.” It is the experience of the Israelite as a ger that heightens our sensitivity to the plight of other gerim.
I once read a story about a Jewish middle school student living in a very white community. She wrote, “When I was about twelve years old, an African-American family moved onto our street. This was highly unusual for our town in the early 1970s, as my town was lily white. My high school graduating class of 400 included only three Asians, two Latinos, two African-Americans – and about a half-dozen Jews.
“After the family moved in, my father took me by the hand and walked me across the street to welcome them. ‘We always treat someone new to the community with kindness. And we make sure that anyone who might feel different is warmly welcomed.’ He continued, ‘The Jew knows what it’s like to be excluded and treated with cruelty. We can never let that happen to anyone else.’”
About the Torah passages concerning the stranger, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi, wrote:
Whenever … the Torah lays down the law concerning the rights of persons, … the “stranger in the land” is placed under special protection. … The degree of justice in a land is measured, not so much by the rights accorded to the native-born inhabitants … or people who have … representatives or connections that look after their interests, but by what justice is meted out to the completely unprotected “stranger.”
The absolute equality in the eyes of the law between the native and the foreigner forms the very basic foundation of Jewish jurisdiction.
Why does the Torah go to such great extremes in commanding – demanding – that we treat the stranger with kindness? Because Torah recognizes the unique hardships faced by people perceived to be different. They are often subject to ridicule, to racism, to xenophobia, and to unequal treatment under the law.
Consider these stories about the treatment of the Jews who lived in Morocco during the last two centuries. Treated as strangers, these Jews were descendants of children of Israel who settled in the area that would become Morocco as early as the fifth century bce.
At that time, Morocco had a mixed history vis-à-vis its Jews. As we moved into modernity, Morocco was considered to be the Arab country that was the kindest to its Jewish residents. And yet these stories are representative of that supposed “kindness.”
This is the first story:
Before the 20th century, the legal and social status of the Jews in
Morocco was based on the interpretations of the Qur’an and the pact of Umar.
In addition to paying a per capita yearly tax levied on non-Muslims and coping with other restrictions, the Moroccan-Jews … were obliged to wear black clothing and a hair-style different from that of a Muslim, in order to be distinguishable in public. Jews could neither ride horses nor bear arms; they were prevented from learning classical Arabic or erecting new synagogues; they were not allowed to bathe in the Muslim bathhouse nor build houses higher than those of Muslims. Their evidence could not be accepted in Muslim courts. … Economic and political instability, popular rebellions, the death of a sultan, or even the rumor of such a death, rendered the Jews more vulnerable than the Muslims. Muslims often expressed their feelings toward Jews in this epigraph: “The Jew contaminates the sea.”
The 20th century was no better for the Jews of Morocco, and in fact, after 1948 and the establishment of the state of Israel, one might argue that it was worse. Author Lyn Julius tells the following story about one family:
My relatives were subjected to repeated episodes of intimidation and violence living as Jews during the upheavals of Morocco in the 1950s. They were expected to show deference to Muslims in public. … My grandfather, who had worked his whole life to build a furniture factory in Casablanca, first had his business seized and assets frozen. The family was large – a lot of kids – and they began to struggle with hunger and fear for their future. Eventually, the al-Fatah movement targeted my grandfather to be killed, and a Muslim friend of his gave him the warning. My family had to flee in the middle of the night, leaving behind their home, traumatized and in panic, smuggling themselves aboard a boat that carried them to a refugee camp in southern France.
The Jews of Morocco are only one example of a people deemed to be the “stranger,” despite their nearly 3,000 year history of residing in that land.
My friend and colleague Rabbi Leah Doberne-Schor astutely observes, that in addition to treating the stranger with chesed, kindness and rachamim, compassion, Torah teaches v’ahavta l’rei-echa k’mocha, “love your neighbor as yourself.”
And she asks, “Why [do we] teach both – to love your neighbor and to love the [stranger]? Because it’s relatively easy for us to empathize with people who seem, at least on the outside, to be like us. On the other hand, it can take far more effort on our part to understand people who appear to be different from us.”
She continues, “Despite these so-called differences, there is, in truth, no difference in our common humanity. As a Jewish person, this teaches me that we manifest God’s love when we treat neighbor and [stranger] alike in our love. Indeed, we turn the stranger – the outsider – into our neighbor by demonstrating kindness, compassion, acceptance, and justice.”
The Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye teaches that turning the stranger into a friend can be a simple act. She reflects on this in her poem Red Brocade:
The Arabs used to say,
When a stranger appears at your door,
feed him for three days
before asking who he is,
where he’s come from,
where he’s headed.
That way, he’ll have strength
enough to answer.
Or, by then you’ll be
such good friends
you don’t care.
Let’s go back to that.
Rice? Pine nuts?
Here, take the red brocade pillow.
My child will serve water
to your horse.
No, I was not busy when you came!
I was not preparing to be busy.
That’s the armor everyone puts on
to pretend they had a purpose
in the world.
I refuse to be claimed.
Your plate is waiting.
We will snip fresh mint
into your tea.
We can do it. We can put fresh mint into a stranger’s tea. We can graciously welcome unknown visitors who pay a shiva call. We can and we must. When we don’t act with kindness, we remain eternally other.
The writer George Saunders recently told this story:
In seventh grade, a new kid joined our class. … Ellen was small and shy. She wore blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she [took] a strand of hair into her mouth and [chewed] on it.
She came to our school and was mostly ignored, occasionally teased (“Your hair taste good?” – that sort of thing). I could see it hurt. I still remember how she’d look after such an insult: eyes cast down, a little gut-kicked, … trying to disappear. Sometimes I’d see her hanging around alone in her front yard, as if afraid to leave it. And then – they moved. That was it. No tragedy, no big final hazing. One day she was there, next day she wasn’t. End of story.
Now, why forty-two years later, am I still thinking about [Ellen]? Because what I regret most in life are my failures of kindness.
Sometimes, it is easier to be kind and compassionate toward the foreign “stranger” – the person escaping social, economic, religious, or political hardship in a distant place – than it is toward the local “stranger” – such as our neighbors down the street, or the homeless man living under the bridge. Certainly, the history of the Moroccan Jews and George Saunders’ memory brings this point home.
We have all been strangers to one extent or another, within our families, within our congregations, and within our communities – because of our race, our age, our disability, our sexuality, our gender identity, our religion, our political outlook, or some other life-affirming aspect of our being. Our national experience as oppressed strangers in Egypt compels us to make sure that today’s strangers are not similarly mistreated. So as we begin the new year of 5779, let us recommit ourselves to treating every stranger with kindness, for no other reason than our shared humanity.
Commentary on Shemot 1:14