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October 2, 2016

Chosen to Be The Other (Rosh HaShanah 5777)

Angela W. Buchdahl

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In college, I majored in religious studies. Before my senior year, I spent the summer in Israel doing research for my thesis on Women in Jewish Music. Simultaneously, I was in the throes of a full-on Jewish identity crisis. My roommate had become newly observant, and to her, Reform Judaism was no longer real Judaism. And on top of that, one of the women I had planned to study with in Israel cancelled my interviews with her when she found out that my mother wasn’t Jewish. “I can only teach Torah to Jews,” she announced. I now know enough to tell you – that is truly one of the least Jewish things a person can say. But as a young adult, it was devastating.

It was in that state of mind that I went to the Kotel to pray with the newly formed Women of the Wall, a group who helped establish a prayer place for women at one of Israel’s holiest sites. They all seemed to be SuperJews and prayed a traditional service with such speed that I really couldn’t keep up. And as a twenty-year-old, Korean Jew, wearing pants, let’s just say – I stood out in the group. But when they asked for volunteers for an aliyah during the Torah Service, I raised my hand. This was my big chance to show this community that I wasn’t a stranger – I was Jewish too! I started to chant the blessing, but before I was halfway through, I confused the words, even though I had said this prayer countless times before. The women quickly corrected me, and I wanted to disappear.

And which words had eluded me? Asher Bachar Banu mikol ha-amim, which means: “You have Chosen us from all other people.” You don’t need to be Freud to analyze this slip up. I couldn’t find those words, because in that moment, I didn’t feel like I was one of the Chosen People. I felt like an outsider. The Stranger.

Some of you may know exactly what that feels like. And even if you are quite secure in your Jewish identity, there may be no concept more unsettling and embarrassing for the modern Jew than the idea of Chosenness. In an age of increasing multiculturalism, diversity and intermarriage, thinking of ourselves as the Chosen People feels both unnecessarily exclusive and uncomfortably arrogant. Chosenness reeks of racial superiority, and even supremacy. Unless we ask the question: Chosen…for what?

Jews were not Chosen to be better, but to make things better. We were Chosen to uphold the traditions and teaching of Torah – with our own particular Jewish language, customs, and chutzpah.

Now, in a world that increasingly celebrates the global and universal, embracing particularism can sometimes feel too narrow. Too provincial. Too tribal.

But tribalism is not all bad. Human beings need our tribes - our families, our congregations, our sports teams, our sororities. Tribes give us a sense of identity and belonging. They give us roots and a community. They help us find our own unique place and purpose. We Jews need our tribe so we can know our story. So we understand who we are and what we were Chosen to do. Chosenness is not about being chosen above others. Jews have been chosen to BE the Other.

What do I mean by that? Chosen to be the Other. With apologies to Rabbi Hillel, if I had to sum up the entirety of our Jewish teaching while standing on one foot, I would say: “You were a Stranger, therefore love the Stranger as Yourself. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.”

Our Jewish master narrative is a story of being strangers in Egypt, being captive and then freed. Not only do we retell this story every year at our Passover Seders, among the most beloved of rituals, we remind ourselves every single day that we were the stranger in our regular liturgy, and in the Friday night Kiddush – zecher litziyat Mitzrayim – and in countless laws in the Torah. On Yom Kippur afternoon, when our entire community is gathered, we will read these words: “The strangers who live with you shall be to you like citizens, and you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

But it’s not just that we were strangers in Egypt. We Jews were strangers at the birth of Judaism; the first Hebrews, Abraham and Sarah were commanded by God: “Lech L’cha – Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, to a place you do not know.” God did not permit Abraham and Sarah to begin Judaism from the comfort of their hometown. They had to become immigrants. They had to be the Other in order to create a religion of the Other.

Moses, born of Hebrews, grew up as a stranger in the Pharaoh’s palace only to launch us into history. In a proclamation of his being the “other” he names one of his sons Gershom – Ger sham – which literally means, “I was a Stranger in that Strange Land.

And Ruth is the exemplary ger, a Moabite turned most-famous-convert – who goes on to become the grandmother of the great King David, and a Mother in the line of the Messiah.

And of course, the story of Jews as the Other is not just Biblical history. It’s been our story throughout the ages. We have made our way as strangers everywhere from Babylon to Brooklyn, and we have survived the Crusades, the pogroms and the concentration camps. It is the backdrop of everything we are.

And while today Jews miraculously have a Homeland in Israel, and are more comfortable than ever here in America – we are commanded never to forget what it feels like to be unwelcome. We are mandated to recall being a Stranger not just as ancient history, but as personal memory, in every generation – to taste the tears and eat the bread of affliction ourselves - to ingest the experience of being the Stranger in our very bodies.

We know nefesh ha-ger – the soul of the stranger – and the force of that Jewish memory is an ever-present caution against any feeling of superiority, bigotry or indifference. As Jews, we know what it is to feel vulnerable and powerless. God chose the Jewish people as the archetypal strangers. Why? So that we would never forget that person behind the barbed wire, barricade, or checkpoint. That family forced to hide or run, that couple carrying all their belongings on their backs, or more basically – those people of a different color, faith or philosophy. We are mandated by our tradition to remember, and protect, and, yes, love the stranger – because we are that stranger. This is what we were Chosen for.

It calls to mind a famous line in the sacred Jewish text, Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye says: “Dear God – I know…I know we are the chosen people…but once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?” This responsibility of being Chosen to be The Other can feel like a heavy burden. And it is. But it also precisely the reason that our little tribe has had such an outsized impact and influence on the world.

David Logan, a professor at USC, has studied tribes for over a decade. And he describes tribal cultures as falling across a spectrum. The most important variable determining whether a tribe is repulsive or revered is how the tribe views and treats the Other.

In Professor Logan’s hierarchy, tribes operating with a low stage culture feed on anger and breed fear of the Stranger. They build tribal cohesion by vilifying the Other. On the other end of the spectrum, the most venerated tribes are bound by something much larger than a common enemy or fear, or even their own tribal pride. They embrace universal human greatness and potential. These Tribes understand that the fate of the Other is inextricably linked to their own. That their own mission is tied to that of all human existence. These are the Tribes that can change the world.

We were Chosen to BE one of those tribes. And we welcome anyone who would choose to join us in this mission.

The prophet Isaiah said: “It is too small a thing that you should be My servant only to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the offspring of Israel; You will be an Or L’Goyim – A light unto the nations, that My liberation will be to the ends of the earth.” Isaiah (49:6).

That is our tribe’s purpose: to be a light to the nations. And right now, the first nation we need to be a Light unto is our own – the United States of America. Our founding fathers, many of them immigrants themselves, imagined this country to be an exceptional tribe, built on the principles of liberty and justice – for ALL. John Winthrop, an early pilgrim, envisioned America as “a shining city on a hill,” a beacon for the persecuted. He came to these shores on a wooden boat, like so many of our ancestors seeking religious freedom.

But right now, America is in danger of forgetting our own history. There are voices raised in this country unlike any we have heard in years, preaching the very lowest form of tribal behavior, romanticizing violence, fomenting distrust of every difference, and trying to convince our nation that we can only be great if we build walls. But the Statue of Liberty, the Mother of Exiles, proclaims our true mission: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Is it coincidence that these words at the base of Lady Liberty were penned by Emma Lazarus, who was American born, but also a Jew who knew the soul of a Stranger? Is it not our calling as American Jews, again at this moment, to be a light to this great nation?

Consider this: Gallup conducted a survey of whether America should open its doors to 10,000 refugee children – innocents caught in the crossfires of war. Ask yourself: would you let them in? More than two-thirds of Americans polled by Gallup said “NO. We should keep them out.”

But this was not a recent poll regarding the Syrian refugee crisis. This Gallup poll was taken in 1939, after the highly publicized events of Kristallnacht, a violent pogrom where Jewish businesses and synagogues were shattered and burned to the ground all over Germany. Those 10,000 children seeking refuge on our shores were mostly Jews. We were the Other.

That same year, 1939, the NY Chamber of Commerce gave scholarly legitimacy to the fear and mistrust of aliens by publishing a paper from the prestigious Carnegie Institute called “Conquest by Immigration.” It reinforced anti-immigrant stereotypes and blamed them for the country’s ills, claiming: they were competition with “real” Americans for jobs, they had a greater tendency towards criminality, and they would only enlarge the relief rolls. Sound familiar?

Despite public sentiment against Jewish immigration, in 1942, a seven-year-old refugee was among the lucky ones granted asylum in America from the horrors of Nazi Germany. He is now 81 years old and has lived an exemplary life as a proud American – a successful businessman, a generous philanthropist, a patriarch of a large family.

This year, he was presented with the Eisenhower award, the highest recognition a civilian can receive for his contribution to America’s National Security. Though he is just one example, this refugee, like so many others, has made America immeasurably stronger, better, and safer. I’m proud to say this man is our own longtime Central member, Mr. Bob Belfer. It is hard to imagine that most Americans rejected admitting Bob and others like him from coming into our country.

But we don’t have to imagine it – because we are doing it again. In the last few years over 65 million people have been displaced worldwide from their homes due to conflict and war. That is one in every 120 people on the planet. It is the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. What are we doing about it? Recent Gallup polls show that the majority of Americans want to close our doors to the “homeless tempest-tost” seeking our shores. This summer, a picture of a young Syrian boy went viral. There was something about the eyes of that dust-covered little boy that stopped us, that allowed us to see him as human. That boy is not a threat. That stranger is US. And when we hear someone urging us to build barriers, when we hear someone demonizing the Other, is it not our moral obligation to remember that we were Chosen for something different? Our Jewish memory demands we use our moral voice and be the world’s conscience.

In the midst of too much ugly rhetoric this summer, the most prominent voice of the American conscience was not a Jew, but an observant Muslim: Khizr Khan. He doesn’t talk or look or eat or pray like the majority of Americans. He came to America for its promise of democracy and freedom. His son, Capt Humayun Kahn, joined America’s armed forces to protect these values, and died defending them, a hero in Iraq.

I heard Khizr Kahn’s story, like many of you, this summer from the Convention. I saw him hold up the United States Constitution. He reminded me of what it truly means to be American – one who doesn’t simply accept our founding values, but marvels in them. Who embraces them, teaches them and is even willing to make the greatest sacrifice for them. He is not Jewish, but he spoke in our prophetic tradition. He reminded us that God’s liberty should be to the ends of the earth. But Khizr Khan’s words were also in the American tradition of Hamilton and Jefferson, of Kennedy and Reagan. In his Presidential farewell address in 1989, Ronald Reagan recalled the pilgrim John Winthrop’s aspiration of America and shared this vision:

“The shining city upon a hill…was God blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace – and if there had to be walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here…And she’s still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the Pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home.”

I’m pretty sure Ronald Reagan didn’t think of that as a Jewish speech. But in describing an America open to the stranger, open to the Other, President Reagan too was speaking in the tradition of Isaiah.

For me, Reagan’s message was not political. It was Principled. And this sermon is not primarily about the election, or the refugee crisis. This is about reaffirming a moral worldview deeply rooted in our Jewish core.

Our God has given every person and every tribe with a light within, a powerful divine spark. If we fan that flame with fear and hatred, it will become a consuming fire. And if we hoard that light, cultivating it only for ourselves, only for our tribe, it ultimately will fade out.

But if we take up our unique light, as a tribe that knows the heart of the stranger –
who will stand up for the Other –
and love the stranger –
and shed our light where it is most needed –
we can live up to the prophetic charge to be an Or L’Goyim.
A light to the nations – starting with our own great nation.
We Jews were chosen for that very purpose.
All the rest is commentary.
Let us go and live it.