Rosh Hashanah Reflections
This blog is a slightly revised version of a Rosh Hashanah sermon that Executive Director Avi Rose delivered at Kehilla Community Synagogue on October 3, 2016.
During the past year, I along with all of us, have been immersed in images of people fleeing, escaping war and persecution, crowding into barely habitable places where they aren’t welcome, casting their fate to flimsy boats crossing dangerous waters, crowding across borders, risking everything for an uncertain future. This is not a new story. For many of us, we need only go back a generation or two, if that, to recall similar stories in our own families. And for all of us who are Jews, we go back to the core narratives that have shaped us as a people, starting with Abraham migrating away from his home to a place he does not know, continuing to the formative experience of our exodus from Egypt, and then, so many centuries of wanderings and expulsions and seeking refuge, a place to live and to be. Our sacred texts and annual rituals continually remind us that we were strangers and that we know the heart of the stranger—it is an indelible part of our collective consciousness. And our texts also continually insist that we must welcome the stranger. It’s deep, as deep as it gets—it’s in the heart and the guts of Jewish experience. We know that, but let’s dig deeper and break it down further.
Ancient Hebrew had several words that referred to foreign-born visitors, but the word for the person who has uprooted herself or has been uprooted from her homeland, becoming a permanent resident elsewhere, is the “ger.” In the past two millennia of relatively recent Jewish history, ger came to be used by some as a term for those who converted to Judaism, but in the Torah and Talmud, ger clearly refers to the immigrant, the refugee, the stranger.
The injunction to welcome the ger occurs 36 (some say 46!) times in the Torah. That kind of repetition is clearly not incidental. We are directed to not oppress the stranger, to not violate the rights of the stranger, to celebrate with the stranger, to not exclude the stranger. In some passages of Torah, the commandment comes at both the beginning and the end of a list of other commandments, punctuating its centrality. So, why is this is seen as so important?
One thread of thought through centuries of texts and commentaries is about vulnerability—that the ger is in many ways alone and therefore especially vulnerable, and we therefore have a special responsibility to treat them with fairness and compassion. In 13th-century Spain, Nachmanides wrote about this vulnerability being both psychological and political: that since a stranger is on their own, we must extend to them a special kind of emotional support, and, we must be prepared to defend them from injustice (more about that in a bit). In our own era, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also writes about this vulnerability, then goes further to say, “Not only must the stranger not be wronged . . . the stranger must be loved.” We are, in fact, commanded to love the stranger. We’re also commanded to love our neighbor, and that’s not so easy, either! But these injunctions aren’t meant to be easy; they are meant to challenge us to be our best selves, and to live the lives we are meant to live.
Beyond loving—and protecting—the vulnerable, is the deeply resonant issue of our own identification with the stranger. This is the part that we recount every year at Passover, and throughout the year. Again, here are words from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, modified for purposes of gender-inclusivity: “Why should you not hate the stranger?—asks the Torah. Because you once stood where they stand now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so are they. If they are less than human, so are you. . . . I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers—for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the color of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they may not be in your image—says G-d—they are nonetheless in Mine. . . . Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”
Because the stranger is me. Which brings us to one more point: we are all strangers. In Leviticus is says, “The land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.” We are temporary residents on this earth, charged with the responsibility to care for it, and for each other. So, we need to approach this whole “stranger” issue with deep identification and with humility.
Personally, during this past year, I’ve been immersed in this issue of welcoming the stranger, since I have the honor of leading an agency that does the holy work of resettling refugees. I’ve had many occasions to reflect on what it means to welcome the stranger in the name of a Jewish institution, and in many people’s eyes, the Jewish people. As some of you know, we are mostly welcoming refugees who are Muslim, who are LGBT, and some who are both. And as my colleague Mark Hetfield from HIAS says, we don’t do this because they are Jewish, we do it because we are Jewish.
So what have I learned during this year? I’ve learned how complex and wrenching it is to uproot your life and come to a strange new country. I’ve learned how resilient many, though not all, people are. I’ve learned not to romanticize people just because they’re refugees—they are human beings with strengths, quirks, personalities, and they’ve all experienced trauma and carry that with them in many different ways.
Also during this past year, in reflecting on our own Jewish commitment and where it comes from, I noticed that none of our sacred texts about welcoming the stranger have caveats attached. They don’t instruct us to welcome the stranger only if she looks like us, or speaks like us or worships like us—and it doesn’t say to welcome the stranger only if he doesn’t make us feel uncomfortable. It just says to welcome the stranger! And in fact, when you think about it, a stranger is quite likely to look or speak or worship or act differently from us—even in all our variety—because they’re a stranger! And though of course we share core human needs and feelings and other experiences, they are likely to be different from us in some ways. And that’s a good thing!
What else have I learned? That we can draw a great deal of hope and inspiration from our own community, Jews and others, here in the East Bay. People are deeply, strongly, generously and persistently interested in welcoming refugees. It has struck a deep chord for many. And the interest is not fleeting—it is strong and sustained. I feel incredibly fortunate to be in a position of witnessing it.
And what else? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about what “welcoming the stranger” means in this historical moment. And I’m with Nachmanides on this one—the answer is political as well as psychological. It is essential to welcome people, to embrace them, to support them, to accompany them, and I’m proud to be part of an agency whose staff and volunteers do those things every single day. However, now, welcoming the stranger has to mean standing up for them boldly and publicly, protecting them against hatred and xenophobia and Islamophobia, advocating for them loudly and often. And certainly, it’s about doing everything in our power to oppose those who, rather than “welcoming the stranger,” stand for “deporting the stranger” or “scapegoating the stranger” or “bullying the stranger.”
Today is Rosh Hashanah. Later this morning, we’re going to hear the call of the shofar. It is a very unsubtle wake-up call. I don’t presume to know all the things that each of us here in this room need to wake up to this year. But part of the shofar’s message is . . . remember. Remember who you are, remember why you’re here, remember the values and teachings that are worth remembering. “Welcoming the stranger” is surely one of them. Let’s take it to heart, and let’s keep learning and acting together, taking opportunities to volunteer and to stand up for refugees. This is a powerful and critical moment for all of us to put our values into action. Let’s do it!
I wish you a Shana Tova, a New Year of sweetness, health, and an absolutely fierce commitment to welcoming strangers and to increasing compassion and justice in this world.