The Stranger, the Frightening Other and Our Broken Promise

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
– Emma Lazarus

It should come as no surprise that a Jew wrote the powerful words of exhortation and welcome engraved on the Statue of Liberty. These words proclaim the noble potential of America with alarming clarity. Millions have arrived in New York Harbor to be embraced by these words. How frightening then is it to realize that we have come to a time in our American experiment when the tone and policy of our government makes mockery of the great promise of that mighty statue and the sacred power of Emma Lazarus’ words.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, in his article, “The Mass Shootings-Tisha B’Av” posted on Aish.com, gives voice to just how distant we have come from the promise of Lazarus’ poem. “The bloodbaths of mass murder are rooted in a veritable plague of hatred – hatred of other views, hatred of people who differ with us in any discernible way, hatred of anyone to whom we can attach a name or label that can be used to justify our loathing. The very word civilized, implying civil discussions with respect for others who do not share our opinions, can no longer be used to describe a society in which disagreement is met not by tolerance but by total rejection and excommunication.

“Look at the social media… you will see the most vile, abhorrent and unfiltered mudslinging… the cruelest expressions… Sinat chinam – baseless hatred – begins with words; it ends with the events of this past weekend.”

The hatred exhibited by the “crowd” (whether on social media or otherwise) is abhorrent; even more horrible is the hatred expressed, either explicitly or tacitly by silent acceptance, by our political, religious and communal leaders. Strangers, those who are “not like us” are hated and maligned in the land where they were once welcomed.  As Jews, we cannot help but see in the rising level of hatred toward immigrants, Muslims, and people of color a corresponding rise in anti-Semitism. As Malcolm Hoenlein put it in a recent Mishpacha interview, “It is a very dangerous trend. It’s rising in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges. We see it in communities, we see it in the media, we see it in entertainment, we see it in culture figures, we see it in boycotts of Israel by entertainers. It is manifest in many ways.”

Yes, this hatred and anti-Semitism is manifest in so many ways. We are once again, like so many others, “strangers in a land not theirs.” Make no mistake, even if Jews are not the first target of hatred in America, we will be a target. Hatred of the stranger inevitably becomes hatred of the Jew.

The cacophony of hatred rising all around us is exploding in horrific acts of violence. The El Paso murderer had posted a manifesto expressing his hatred of Latinos and immigrants, his hatred of the “invasion” on our Southern border, rang loud and clear.

Should we as Jews fear being drawn into this climate of hate, of “otherness”?

We would do well to remember that loving a ger, a stranger, is a mitzvah no different than observing Shabbat, eating kosher, giving charity. It is, and must be, essential to our psyche and our behavior. Every day we must remember our “otherness”, we must remember God who took us out of Mitzrayim. God, who reveals Himself to us at Sinai with the words, I the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.

Why is it a mitzvah to love a ger? Why is it a mitzvah to remember how terrible it is to be a stranger? Because in that mitzvah, in that remembering, we remember how much it hurt, how much it hurts, to be a stranger, to be considered “the other.” And in remembering, we seek to remember others who are strangers, to lift them up from their sense of “otherness.”

In Parshat Ekev, we are challenged with one of the most compelling – and counter-intuitive – obligations in all Torah. “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19) This mitzvah appears thirty-six times (double chai!) in Torah. We have heard it so often and referred to it so regularly that we often lose sight of its power and unsettling demand.

We do so at our peril and diminishment.

Too often, we have neutered the demands of this mitzvah to fit our comfort rather than confront the profound – and gracious – imposition that it places upon us. God has not commanded us to care for the stranger for our comfort but for his! Listen to this command with fresh ears, with the ears of our ancestors, with the ears of a people and a world for whom communal identity was fundamental to self and existence. This command tells us to go against everything that our human instincts and fears demand. It tells us to see beyond the familiar and the safe and to see the shared fundamental goodness and holiness that God bestows upon all His creatures.

We Jews are hardly immune to the fear of those different than us. Even those of us committed to keeping God’s commandments shirk this one. Many observant Jews look at gerim with crossed eyes, avoiding any possibility of crossing paths with the ger. “I have enough with our own.” They view the ba’al teshuva with even greater scorn than they do the ger. Who would want to marry into a ba’al teshuva family? Who needs the hassle? After all, “if you aren’t born with it, you can never catch up….” Similar prejudices color our view of the divorced, the older, single person. The widow. And the OTD person? Forget it!

And these are Jews! Hardly strangers!

“You shall not wrong a stranger, nor oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20).

We are told to care for the stranger but to do so we must ask, who is the ger? I posed this seemingly straightforward question to my son, Nathan. His response spoke to the deep wisdom in God’s command. “People think that the admonition not to mistreat gerim is a directive at a specific group of people who have unique circumstances that qualify them as ‘gerim’. I think the directive is different. I think anyone in any social situation can feel like a ger. The new kid in class. The new guy at the office. In fact, in any social situation there is likely to be someone that feels like a ger—doesn’t have to be a new situation, it’s just the inevitability of a social dynamics.”

A ger is not just defined by physical realities; not defined by where he’s from or the color of his skin. He is one whose place in life makes him feel like a ger!

Even the one who is part of the community can sometimes feel like a stranger.

This understanding brings a larger perspective to the mitzvah, encouraging us to look for the ger in every situation and respond supportively, it encourages us to see in the eyes of the estranged divorced men and women who have lost their home, Shabbos table, dignity, and confidence, that stranger that we were once in the land of Egypt! It encourages us to see the humanity and beauty in those teens who have become estranged from their homes, yeshivas, shuls, and communities. The OTD? Gerim.

The mitzvah commands us to treat the ger not with scorn but loving kindness, for we all experience pain and angst in the galut of our souls; none of us can be born redeemed. It is only in our wandering and our wrestling with our lives and our experience that we appreciate redemption and the grace God affords us. Without galut there is no grace and redemption.

Without the ger there is no citizen.

We were gerim in the land of Egypt. Now they are gerim in their own mitzrayim (narrow, tight place). They are boxed in. Lost. And God commands that we treat them with respect, loving kindness, decency. God commands that we treat them in a way that makes clear that redemption is just ahead.

While it may seem “only human” to guard against the stranger, to fear the stranger, it is, in fact, because we are “only” human that God commands us to be more, to rise above our limitations, to remember our own pain and fear so that we can respond to the pain and fear of others.

When we don’t… we see the results of when we allow our rhetoric and our emotions to express the limitations of our human natures. We see it in images of a child injured when his mother shielded him and his father, shielding both. We see it in the news that both mother and father were killed by the hateful terrorist in El Paso. We see it in the murderous hate of the shooter in Dayton who, on a first date, showed video of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting to his new girlfriend.

Fear. Hate. Loathing.

Of the other.

Strangers.

According to some – civic leaders, religious leaders, educated men and women – they are criminals, rapists, gang members. They are anything but human, anything but God’s creatures currently in the galut but in search of their coming redemption.

God does not accept our fear, our incendiary words, our hateful speech and behavior. When we stood at the foot of Sinai, perhaps we had already forgotten the fear and shame of being gerim. God demands that we remember, not for ourselves but for others who still feel those demeaning emotions even as we bask in the light of grace.

Who is the ger?

We all are.

Who is in galut?

We all are.

Who stands at the foot of Sinai?

We all do. If we do not see that we must do so together then we are doomed to standing at the foot of Sinai painfully and horribly and tragically alone and apart, creating the otherness we so scorn.