Rosh Hashanah 2018: overcoming fear of the stranger


My two High Holiday sermons tend to focus on social issues in one and personal spirituality in the other. This year, the topic of civic concern that seems particularly urgent is xenophobia. We see it in the rise of far-right parties spreading across Europe; we see it in acts of antisemitism, as close to home as Carmel, Indiana, and as recently as a cyber-post this week from our own IU campus (even though the phenomenon of antisemitism surpasses mere hostility toward those perceived to be different, it nevertheless epitomizes bigotry); and, especially, we see fear of the stranger in the official policies of our own government, which have become more hostile to immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, undocumented and otherwise.

Mass migration poses difficult dilemmas to any sovereign nation in the developed world. The problem of hordes fleeing violence and starvation is only going to worsen in coming decades under the accumulating stresses of overpopulation and climate change, both of which feed ethnic violence and civil wars. Even the Statenof Israel is not immune from its own related crisis, as it wrestles with what to do for refugees from Darfur, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Though the solution to the problem of tens of millions of forcibly displaced people worldwide is far from clear, our tradition is clear on one point: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, youshall not wrong him… or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33; Exodus 22:20)—a commandment so foundational that the Torah reportedly repeats it thirty-six times.

Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, inaugurates an intense period of moral self-examination. So one would expect the designated Scriptural passage to highlight basic ethical precepts. Instead, what we get is a domestic tale of jealousy and resentment. Maybe that’s the point: for the premiere Torah reading of the year, the Rabbis chose to spotlight real individuals in real situations, with the same cross-currents of impulses, noble as well as ugly, that we easily recognize in ourselves. It’s well and good to accept: “you shall not oppress the stranger” in the abstract, but what about applying such principles in actual relationships?

Abraham has two sons: the firstborn, Ishmael, to whom he is attached, and the second, Isaac, who is to inherit the Covenant. Sarah is protective of Isaac, but she resents Ishmael from the start. Even though Sarah herself gave her handmaiden Hagar to her husband Abraham so that Hagar and Abraham might sleep together, as soon as Hagar conceives Ishmael, Sarah despises them both. The Torah employs exceptionally harsh language: ve-t’aneha, “and Sarah afflicted Hagar”—evoking the same usage to describe the Egyptians’ maltreatment of the Israelites in their midst generations later. It is no coincidence that Hagar is Egyptian. This is the first clue that the drama we read on Rosh Hashanah involves not just a family squabble but anticipates the policy of entire nations toward outsiders. The second clue is Hagar’s name. Ha-geir means: “the stranger.”

The Torah portion also stands out for its emotional intensity. The Hebrew Bible rarely displays the inner feelings of protagonists, but this passage goes out of its way to detail Hagar’s and Ishmael’s despair: “When the water was gone from the skin, Hagar left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away, saying to herself, ‘let me not look on as the child dies;’ sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.” (Genesis 21:15-16) The narrative forces us to see beyond our loyalty to the Covenant, which is destined to expand through Abraham and Isaac, and draws us into empathy for those excluded from it, Hagar and Ishmael. Rabbi Sacks summarizes: “The episode involving Hagar and Ishmael is saturated with emotion. We are compelled to identify with Hagar and Ishmael. It is a human drama, and its very humanity is what gives it power.”

The same can be said of the commandment: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt.” It is a human commandment, and its very humanity is what gives it its authority. The sage Nachmanides asks a probing question: what does the second clause, “for you were strangers in Egypt,” add to the first, “for you know the feelings of the stranger?” The answer, he says, is that they provide two different rationales: “you know the feelings of the stranger” is a psychological motive, and “you were strangers in Egypt” a political one.

“You know the feelings of the stranger” draws us into empathy, even though empathy for foreigners does not come naturally. The Torah’s cornerstone commandment, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” is relatively straightforward because in many ways your neighbor is like yourself. He or she belongs to the same nation, the same culture, the same economy, the same political persuasion, the same worldview. But the Torah demands more from us, not just “you shall love your neighbor” but “you shall love the stranger as yourself.”

Judaism invariably instructs us to transcend our impulses. While acknowledging our baser drives, we are supposed to overcome them. Beholding a handsome body may stimulate lust, but we are forbidden from acting on it (unless he’s our spouse!). Another person’s insult may provoke anger, but we are forbidden from lashing out. How we respond to foreigners is another case in which we are directed to curb our instinctual tendencies. Like the lioness guarding her cub from other,predators, we are biologically predisposed to treat outsiders with suspicion, as potential threats to whom and what we hold dear. Accordingly, Sarah’s fierce protectiveness of her beloved son Isaac arouses her antipathy toward Ishmael.

Prevailing arguments against immigrants often focus on the danger they may pose to our livelihoods and lives—their drain on the national economy, or their risk to national security, whereas in actuality, from a psychological standpoint, what they imperil most is our identity—our sense of the familiar, the faces and voices thatmake us feel safe, and who we think of as “American.” As with other urges, the Torah commands us to override our natural distrust. Despite our innate inclination to cast him out, we are forbidden from “wronging the stranger or oppressing him.”

How do we cultivate affinity for individuals with whom we share nothing in common? What is necessary is to imagine ourselves in their place. Behind every statistic stand living, breathing human beings, who, underneath cultural distinctions, share the same hopes and dreams, worries and preoccupations, as ourselves. If my son and mother were killed overnight by a gang and I had one daughter left, wouldn’t I also risk everything to flee to America, despite all obstacles, like the actual Honduran woman in detention at the southern border, whose story I read in The Atlantic last week? (“Today’s Migrant Flow is Different,” The Atlantic, June, 2018) Identifying myself in the other’s experience is the essence of empathy.

The consideration, “for you know the feelings of the stranger,” appeals to our emotions, but humane conduct toward foreigners is also a matter of justice. Justice is the concern behind the Torah’s second rationale: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Nachmanides elaborates: “Do not think, says God, that if youoppress the stranger, none can deliver him out of your hand. Just as I avenged your cause on the Egyptians, when you were strangers in the land of Egypt, so I shall deliver all who are oppressed from the hands of the mighty.”

Long before Liberation Theology came in vogue, Nachmanides categorically declared that God stands with the marginalized. Nachmanides’s claim is moral. He urges those of us who oppose bigoted government officials as well as unjust policies and legislation to take heart—even if we don’t actually believe that Godwill swoop down and overthrow those in power—from the assurance thatdefending immigrants is fundamentally approved and confirmed by God. Nachmanides’s claim is also historical. Just as Egypt was overthrown, a nation that preys upon outcasts in its midst cannot endure; it is inherently unstable and will assuredly collapse.

Howe we treat the stranger is how others may and will ultimately treat us. Consider this: we’re all alien from someone’s perspective. Actually, the Torah makes a more radical assertion: we’re alien even from our own perspective, in our own land and among familiar people. That’s because displacement is a constituent aspect of the existential human condition. “When you enter the land that I give you,” says Adonai in Leviticus, ‘[remember:], the land is mine, and you are but strangers and sojourners with Me,” a sentiment echoed much later by King David at the height of Ancient Israel’s political power: “we are strangers and sojourners with You, Adonai our God. Our days on earth are like a shadow. As for all the abundance [that we may be blessed to enjoy], it all comes from Your hand, it all belongs to You.”

On this day, of all days, when we confront the vanity of earthly attachments in the face of encroaching mortality, can we look beyond our tribal affinities and recognize the global kinship that binds us all? Rosh Hashanah is the most universal of Jewish holidays. All other festivals commemorate particular events in Israelite history, but Rosh Hashanah celebrates the Creator and the creation of all existence. Although the Torah reading upholds the Covenant of Abraham and Isaac, it summons us into the experience of those outside the Covenant, Hagar and Ishmael.

In Yossi Klein Halevi’s powerful and provocative recently published Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, he pleas passionately across the divide of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict for mutual acceptance. The following passage appears in the book’s final pages: “In these letters, neighbor, I have tried to convey to you something of why being Jewish and Israeli is so important to me… And yet I try to remind myself that, in the end, along with our personalities and achievements, the soul will leave all our mortal identities behind. So long as we walk this earth, we honor those identities and loyalties. But being a religious person also requires maintaining a relationship with our souls, to the core of our being that is indifferent to all the identities we cherish. Can we draw on our souls, neighbor, to overcomeour fears?”

Halevi is addressing the lack of faith between Israelis and Palestinians, but his words apply equally well to our suspicion of outsiders in this country. Can we draw on our souls, which will one day leave behind all earthly identities and loyalties, to overcome our fears of immigrants and refugees? “Love your neighbor as yourself” is no longer sufficiently inclusive in today’s globally interconnected world. Our challenge today is to extend the commandment to: “love the stranger as yourself.”

We are used to building circles of empathy around ourselves. Our circles may include loved ones, family members, close friends, business associates, people in our community, other Jews, and fellow Americans. The greatest societal conflicts of our time emerge from the boundaries we draw. Who shall reside within the limits of dignity and caring that we set, and who shall be left outside? The person of color? The LGBT person? The religious minority? The impoverished? The person with disability? The person struggling with mental illness? The addicted? The homeless? The refugee? The asylum seeker? The undocumented immigrant? It is our religious imperative to keep on expanding the circles of our concern, to encompass ever widening and more disparate populations, they embrace all of humanity—even, and especially, the stranger—as denoted by the magnificent Rosh Hashanah piyyut: “all the world shall come to know You.” It is an obligation born of love and demanded by righteousness.