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October 3, 2016

Welcoming the Stranger (Rosh HaShanah 5777)

Rabbi Lisa Rubin

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

A year ago, my family moved from New York City to Westchester. We knew it would be a challenge to uproot the five of us, to leave the city for the suburbs, and to trade cabs for carpools. But we looked forward to the great outdoors, the beautiful neighborhoods, the excellent schools, and most of all, the reputed friendliness of the natives. We were lucky – our expectations panned out. We have happily settled. Although as we know, adjusting to a new way of life is difficult. Belonging takes time. But fortunately, the people we’ve met along the way have been so encouraging, fielding endless questions and offering their ready and helpful friendship. The fine art of genuine welcoming is alive and well.

As Jews, welcoming is and always has been an integral part of who we are. Welcoming the stranger is one of Judaism’s most time honored virtues. Our tradition supports – in fact, commands us – to be welcoming, warm, open, inclusive people. Our literature is filled with references to these values and the people who displayed them. The commandment to be hospitable appears in the Torah 36 times – more than any other commandment. And, welcoming guests is one of the few mitzvot described in the Talmud for which we receive the rewards both in this world and in the world to come.1 The rabbis studied, and derived ethical principles from, the biblical stories of hospitality.

There are multiple levels of welcoming; many interpretations of hospitable. From the interpersonal experience between individuals and families, to the modern equivalences of the community “welcome wagon,” all the way to the immigration policies of the world’s many nations, the virtues of being warm and welcoming are needed all the time.

Let’s start with the most personal level. We all have strangers come into our lives. Each friendship, work relationship, neighborly bond, or family extension – each begins with an encounter with a stranger. This is the time of year to ask ourselves: Do we always rise to the occasion the way our tradition of decency calls for? If not, what holds us back from a gesture of kindness in the direction of someone new? Have we forgotten the agony of being the new kid in the class, the new family in a community, the new employee in the office?

We should not underestimate the power of one person warmly tending to someone who is vulnerable. Every encounter in a new place – especially the first one – is a potential game changer. Those very first words and acts of welcome leave an indelible mark. The follow up care and concern only solidify the foundation. People remember kindness and hospitality throughout their entire lives.

In a coffee shop recently, a woman and I were talking about our professions. “I’m not Jewish,” she said, “But we always have Passover seder with our neighbors and for years our kids celebrated Hannukah with a family down the block.”

Her comment is one of many I have heard from non-Jews recounting their early experiences with Jewish families. These experiences often pave the way, they tell me, to being open (and attracted) to Judaism. At a recent conversion of a 79-year-old woman, she spoke to us about the very first Jew she knew – a warm, kind, open, inspiring woman who was the principal of her elementary school. Seventy years ago, a Jewish principal left an impression on a young girl who would then go on to seek out Jews her entire life, marry a Jew, raise Jewish children, and convert in a late chapter in her life.

Every encounter carries the potential to create a Jewish future. Of course that’s not the only reason we should be kind. We never know what effect we are having on someone in the long term. But we know what a lifeline friendliness and warmth can be in the short term. We must personify being a light unto the nations because it is commanded of us as Jews, and demanded of those of us who are Jewish professionals. It takes nothing away from us to be open and welcoming. A candle flame can light a million other candles and never itself be diminished.

The rabbis believed inclusive people would build inclusive homes. One of the best known examples of this in the Torah is in Genesis. Chapter 18 opens with Abraham sitting in the doorway of his tent on a hot day. Three strangers appear to him and the text says he “ran to greet them”2 and bowed down to them, offering gracious hospitality of food, water, and shade. He asks his wife Sarah to bake special cakes and bread and help him in entertaining these unexpected guests.

In his commentary, the scholar Rashi asks, “Why was Abraham sitting at the door of his tent?”  His answer was that he did so to facilitate welcoming approaching strangers immediately. He goes on to say that Abraham made sure to position his tent in a central place in camp and roll up all four sides. This way, he could see travelers coming from any direction and all would feel welcome approaching an open tent. Such was the extent of Abraham’s desire to offer hospitality.3 This, by the way, is where the tradition of the chuppah, the wedding canopy, comes from. There are no rules for a chuppah except that it be open on all four sides, mimicking our patriarch’s tent. Since the chuppah is symbolic of the home the couple will build together, a message is sent to the community on the wedding day: this couple’s home will be open and welcoming not only to their family and friends (who are usually standing under the chuppah) but to anyone wishing to visit. So important is the idea of hospitality that the rabbis write it into every marriage from the very beginning.

Abraham is held up as an exemplar of personal behavior and his home a true model of warmth and generosity. In his blog, Rabbi Henry Karp points out that this is ironic, because Abraham did not live in welcoming lands. Twice, we read that he and Sarah were so unwelcome that they needed to conceal the fact that they were married, lest they face the real possibility of not making it out alive. And yet, Abraham’s home was going to be different. It was not a place of exclusiveness or inflexibility. It was open. He and Sarah were gracious. Thus, our homes should be welcoming as well. All year round, but especially on the holidays.

On Sukkot, one of the main commandments is hachnasat orchim, showing hospitality to guests. The book of Jubilees actually traces the custom of having guests eat in our sukkah to Abraham’s tents.4

On Passover, we speak a formulaic declaration of hospitality: Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share in the meal. We must ask ourselves: Who is in need of company – who may be alone on this holiday? And who is hungry for knowledge – do we know anyone interested in Judaism who could be enriched by a seder experience? And when we do have the proverbial stranger at our table, how welcoming do we make it?

Most conversion students cite their first seder as a landmark event in their relationship with a Jew. It is unforgettable – the set table, the display of food, the familiarity with which the family navigates the haggadah. For an outsider, Passover can seem magical, but at the same time, intimidating. Being put on the spot to read aloud, sitting silently as everyone is singing songs you don’t know, politely trying foods that are totally foreign to you. If we are going to invite the stranger, we are then responsible for their experience. Maya Angelou gets it right that “…people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Leviticus 19:33 says “…The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself…” I interpret this verse as an instruction on how we are to treat non-Jews and converts; in fact, the Hebrew word for convert, ger, means stranger. I believe that we are not only commanded to accept non-Jews and converts into our community but we are to show love and kindness toward them. Abundant, abundant kindness, as we would anyone else in our community. As a rabbi whose work is solely in the realm of interfaith and conversion, I take this commandment to heart. So a word on this:

Some clergy believe converting should be difficult because being Jewish is difficult. This is nonsense. We don’t have to turn interested parties away three times, or bring up three hardships they might encounter, or put any other obstacles in front of them to “test” their resolve. They’ll do it themselves. They’ll doubt themselves, doubt their intentions, doubt religion, doubt their choices. Our job is to walk them through the inevitable vulnerability and insecurity and steadily march them toward their goal. We must be the steadfast and solid voice of encouragement: You can do this. You belong with us. Our community wants you.

Isn’t it true? We should be so lucky that anyone is interested in Judaism. It is a fabulous, modern phenomenon that non-Jews want to marry into our community, much less become Jewish themselves! This was not the case throughout most of history. There is no reason not to feel utter respect, compassion, and excitement toward anyone remotely interested in our tradition. It deeply angers me to hear the stories (which I am treated to weekly) of rejection, humiliation, insensitivity, and discouraging first encounters of non-Jews with Jewish clergy. To what end were these actions meant? The tradition is not ours alone to give or withhold as we choose. How presumptuous is it for any particular segment of our community to consider itself the arbiter of our millennia old tradition?  Judaism belongs to whomever will have its blessings and join its struggle. When the first convert in our religion, Ruth, declares “Your people shall be my people, your God, my God” was her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi standoffish, arrogant, and nasty? Of course not. My beloved teacher, Rabbi David Ellenson, wrote, “The Jewish community will, undoubtedly, be colored by the sorts of converts that it accepts. But it will be shaped no less by the pathos we muster as we formulate [conversion] policy…”5 Any policy that involves intimidation, disrespect, or cold indifference has no place in the Jewish world.

We need to be fearlessly inclusive. We must have a visible, remarkable openness to those who want to join our ranks. Our past validates this: Hillel, Maimonides, Saadia Gaon and many more of our best minds wrote about embracing non-Jews. And our future depends on it. The landscape of liberal Judaism is inextricably linked to how we handle issues of interfaith marriage and conversion. The borders of our community are not fixed. We are privileged to augment our numbers with those attracted to our tradition and teachings.

However, welcoming of the stranger often goes awry. For example, I have seen parents with very good intentions miss the opportunity for warmth when an adult child brings home someone they love. That encounter is often fraught with difficulty. How many times have I heard the story from a distraught man or woman: “I could just tell her parents didn’t like me. Their disappointment was palpable. I wasn’t from the right kind of family. I wasn’t Jewish. I wasn’t what they were hoping for.”

I do not stand in judgment on any parents. With three children ages five and under, I can only imagine the expectations that build with time about who our children will become and who they will ultimately partner with. But I wish we could express our misgivings – our valid sadness or concern – first in private to our children, then perhaps to a friend, or clergy, or a therapist. It does very little but engender lasting, negative feelings when parents refuse to meet a partner or worse, meet them but are cold and unfriendly. This sends a difficult message to receive, especially if the relationship is a serious one already. A stranger stepping into a new family dynamic is naturally nervous and insecure. Can we not put our best, welcoming foot forward from the beginning? We will then help to nurture a relationship of warmth and goodwill where the dignity of our children’s partners remains intact. They are someone’s child, too. And our child may not be their parents’ first choice, either.

Again, thirty-six times the Torah tells us to be welcoming. That’s our reminder. The rabbis take such great pains to remind us of the importance of kindness because we have been in need of such kindness countless times in our own history. We have been outsiders. Exodus says we have to know “the soul of the stranger.”6 We know the soul of the stranger because we ARE the stranger.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, comments on this theme:

“Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. 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 colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says God – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”7

Let’s remind ourselves that Jewish history is one of constant migration. Charlie Arnovitz adds, “And our fate and successes have depended on the manner in which we were treated in each foreign land – what professions and opportunities were open to us, what sort of abuse and discrimination we faced.”8

When I was in middle school, Soviet Jews were immigrating to the United States in vast numbers. My family, along with several other Atlanta families, sponsored a Russian family who was being relocated by our local Jewish Federation. It was such a memorable experience of my youth – the years we spent with the Germanovich family as they got on their feet and slowly became Americans. My parents never explained to us that we were doing this because we were Jewish, but in hindsight, it made sense. Like many in this room, my family narrative is one of immigration to this country – my grandparents were immigrants. So this family from Russia could have been our family. And so we saw them that way.

Today, in the face of corrupt government, prolonged violence, and global inequalities, unprecedented millions are seeking to come to the United States and other Western nations. We must ask ourselves – are we embracing these strangers? Are we doing all our tradition demands of us in this realm? Action is urgently needed to find homes and new lives for those displaced by civil war, and ethnic and religious hatreds. All of us, in all parts of the world, must step up to the plate and do our part. For us Jews, as I have already said, it is our historical mandate.

We need not look to ancient history for an example of when Jews were victims of indifference and xenophobia. Nicholas Kristof wrote a chilling article in the New York Times titled “Anne Frank Today is a Syrian Girl.”9 In it, he outlines how the current landscape is frighteningly similar to that of the 1930’s and 40’s. At that time, the obstacle to Jewish immigration was American wariness toward refugees that outweighed sympathy. Kristof writes, “After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews, a poll found that 94 percent of Americans disapproved of Nazi treatment of Jews, but 72 percent still objected to admitting large numbers of Jews. The reason for the opposition then were the same as they are for rejecting Syrians or Hondurans today: We can’t afford it, we should look after Americans first, we can’t accept everybody, they’ll take American jobs, they’re dangerous and different.” “History rhymes,” Kristof writes. Jews know this better than anyone.

The immigration debate is terribly complex (and merits a whole other sermon!). But the starting point must be that so much of Jewish law and sensibility – not just being hospitable – calls on us to act in some way in the face of this crisis.

The rabbis were wise because they knew that if hospitality started at home, it would emanate outward toward community, and then society at large. The rabbis knew there were societal, national, and international dimensions to the issue of how we treat others who come into our midst. It is overwhelming to think of the largest scale, so we’re encouraged to start on the private one, the personal one. Rabbi Henry Karp summarizes, “… in the end, Hachnasat Orchim need not exclusively be a Jewish value, practiced solely in Jewish venues.  As we incorporate this virtue into our lives, ideally it should become a part of our daily lives, no matter where we are and no matter who we are with.  And then, hopefully, it will grow in our hearts to the point where we come to understand that our communities, our states, our nation, and even our world are but extensions of our homes, and as such should be havens in which strangers as well as natives should feel welcomed and safe.”

It is difficult, this year, to look outward and not feel despair. We have witnessed unspeakable tragedy and terror in the world. We have heard hateful, deeply disturbing political discourse uncharacteristic of any other American election. Who of us at some point over the last year has not said, “Has the world gone mad?” And yet, Jews have never given in to the dark night of despair; never retreated to a place of “nothing we can do about it.” I’m not going to tell you who to vote for or what my thoughts are for battling terrorism. But I will offer the Jewish perspective that the actions of one person can make an overwhelming difference. On today’s subject, the work of hospitality can be profoundly important as a service to God and humanity.

There is a wonderful story in Jewish lore about a man who stood before God with a broken heart from all the pain and injustice in the world. “Dear God,” he cried out, “look at all the suffering, the anguish, and distress in Your world. Why don’t you send help?” God responded, “I did send help. I sent you.”10

We must see ourselves as being sent. Each of us has a unique contribution to make to the world. We are a compassionate people who care about others. Acting with loving kindness binds us together as a community and binds us across time to our founders. As we welcome the year 5777, let us resolve to be Jewish in one of the most significant ways – by welcoming the stranger.

  1. Shabbat 127a
  2. Genesis 18:2
  3. Rabbi Henry Karp, Blog on Jubilees 16:21
  4. Rabbi David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis “Embrace the Stranger in our Midst” The Times of Israel Opionion March 28, 2012
  5. Exodus 23:9
  6. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, p. 186 as reprinted in Rabbi Josh Caruso Blog
  7. Arnowitz, Charlie. Strangers in the Land of Egypt: Welcoming the Immigrant on Passover. April 3, 2014
  8. August 25, 2016
  9. As reprinted in Wolpe, David. Teaching Your Children About God. p. 186