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2019 Erev Rosh Hashanah

09/29/2019 12:00:00 AM

Sep29

Rabbi Adir Glick: Do Not Oppress the Stranger

Good Yontif.

Va yelekh Avram kasher diber Adonai.

And Abraham went forth as Adonai had said.

 

Va’ yaavor Avram baaretz.

And Abraham passed through the land.

 

After I moved to the United States to Los Angeles for rabbinic school I started to encounter the illegal immigrants from the Latin countries.

 

They all had their stories… I remember one woman I met whose story has stayed with me ...

 

She had been a foster child in Mexico and was married to an abusive husband, had three children, and had a realization one day that her only hope for a future was to run away across the border.

 

She spoke of the long trek across the border through the desert. She had her three young children with her, fleeing her husband. She remembered a lot of the time just being scared and alone. She was the only woman in the group. But as she told the story, she added that she heard at the beginning of the walk in a hushed voice one of the men saying to the others, we have to watch out for her, she was comforted.

 

They trekked on and on, until suddenly, while it was dark, the man in charge said to her and to all of them, Run, run, run.” She said that she started to run with her three children. It was terrifying. She was picking one up, grabbing the other. Falling down. Her heart was beating in her chest. As she told this part of the story, she appeared to be a stoic and pragmatic person. Tears came down her cheeks. I knew it had been at least two decades before. One could see she was reliving the experience again, Running, running… until she was found on the other side.

 

We know that story.

 

We have heard it before.

 

I have shared from this bima the story of my great grandfather who fled the Bolshevik revolution. He was escaping the reds or whites, when his train was taken over and soldiers walked carriage to carriage to shoot random passengers. Or on another step of their journey, the man who oversaw their passage over water asked them to sit in the boat. My great grandfather, gun to his head, said no. Until, thankfully my great grandmother pulled him down. It was amazing - the relationship didn’t change all that much in 60 years!

 

We All have Those Stories

 

Great grandparents, grandparents, parents, ourselves.

 

You know what it is like to flee a land that is no longer hospitable to you and what it feels like when your life is in the balance and to arrive in a strange land.

 

It is a long road to being accepted…

 

My friend, the illegal immigrant, spoke a little. She did not - I think - want to sound as if she was complaining, about always fearing about what if she gets caught. Taking all the precautions…

 

The Jewish tradition understands.

 

Seven times, the Torah repeats not to oppress the stranger.

 

It is not as if it does not have other mitzvot to talk about.

 

Exodus 22:20 – “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt.”

 

Exodus 23:9 – “You shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land Egypt.

 

Leviticus 19:33,34 – “When a stranger resides among you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”

 

Deuteronomy 23:16 – “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases, you must not ill treat him.

 

Deuteronomy 10:18,19 – “For the Lord Your god is God supreme, ha el ha gadol ha gibor ve hanora – sound familiar? From the Amidah… He upholds the fatherless and the widow, and befriends - literally loves - the stranger – providing him with food and clothing. You too must befriend – again, literally, love – the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

 

Deuteronomy 27:19Cursed be he who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.” And all the people shall say, “Amen!”

 

 

The Sound of the Shofar Itself

 

As we are taught: Awake! Renew yourselves! Gather with your fellows!

 

But also, the shofar is the sound of the Jubilee year, the Yovel.

 

Every 49 years, the Torah decrees, in one of its more utopian pronouncements, all land reverts to its original owners.

 

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement, explains that the shofar of the Jubilee is the sound of freedom.

 

This is the sound of a world of complete freedom and justice.

 

The shofar is also the call for us to remember that ideal, of all people, we understand that need, forged in the crucible of Egypt.

 

Our deepest story.

 

It is our spiritual DNA.

 

We were strangers in Egypt.

 

This is the story of Joseph who saved Egypt from famine by interpreting the dreams of pharaoh, thereby storing grain.

 

Even as Joseph’s descendants were celebrated they remained apart, strangers. They were sheepherders in a culture that despised sheep.

 

But we grew and grew and they feared us and enslaved us.

 

The story of the Haggadah that we have been reliving together as families and communities for 3500 long years.

 

I do not need to repeat that story now.

 

Our lives were embittered, slowly.

 

We are reminded: Do not forget that experience of powerlessness.

 

It is also the story of Abraham, the first Jew, the beginning of the Jewish way.

 

Whose story we read every Rosh Hashannah.

 

The birth of Isaac and the casting away of Ishmael that we read this morning was 20 years after Abraham arrived in the land.

 

Afterwards, Abraham, aged 75, answered the Divine call in Mesopotamia. Lekh lekha mi atzeckha, Go forth from your land, the land of your birth, your father’s house, to the land I will show you. The commentators explain: Go from your land, from the culture of your native land, from the idolatry of your father’s house, to seek a new beginning.

 

Abraham was 75 when he walked across the ancient Near East / Fertile Crescent.

 

He underwent a period of adjustment. His nephew was kidnapped. He did not have provisions to outlast a famine.

 

Ten years after that, if you roll our Torah back one column or two from where we read this morning, we find another foundational story that teaches us about what our tradition holds about the stranger.

 

After, God is pleased with his service and makes a covenant with him. The covenant is to be sealed in his flesh. The rabbis explain, as Abraham is recovering from his circumcision, ke khom ha yom, in the sweltering heat of the middle of the day, as the Torah emphasizes, Abraham is standing by the entrance to his tent, to gaze out, to look for anyone in need of assistance.

 

Abraham Did Not Answer a Knock, He Went Looking

 

He understood what it meant to be a stranger in a foreign land.

 

Three strangers appear wandering through the wilderness before him. He rushes to them. Despite his discomfort, he runs to greet them. He washes their hands and feet. He promises food and shade. He assures them that he will take care of all of their needs so that they may rest before heading out again.

 

The unnamed strangers happen to be Divine beings, messengers sent by God to share good news.

 

The important question of why did Abraham go out of his way and stand by the entrance to his tent to look out for strangers?

 

He knew what it feels like to cross the wilderness in the heat of the day. To be a stranger, to arrive in a land not yours. To not really have a place. To lack safety and security.

 

The Torah tells us when he arrived in the Promised Land, the Caananites were in the land. He struggled. Now he was more established.

 

His heart had empathy for the strangers.

 

Why has this story in the Torah resonated with Jews across cultures and countries over so important to us over the ages?

 

Because there have been many times when we too would have wished that the same be done for us in that situation? Kekhom ha yom – in the heat of the day.

 

How many time would we have wished the same was done for us when we were in that situation?

 

The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidism, explains the shofar is not only the sound of freedom, it is the sound of the world of freedom.

 

The sound of the world that we are entrusted to create.

 

What do the three angels reveal to him?

 

Joy – his aged wife Sarah is with child. Miracle of miracles.

 

But also -- God plans to destroy the evil inhabitants of Soddom and Gemorah.

 

Abraham could have rested on the joy, the miracle. He had already accomplished a great mitzvah that day.

 

Instead, he begins to argue with God, to save the sinners of Soddom and Gemorah, to save the cities. What if there are 40 righteous people there? 25? 15?

 

They were not Hebrews or hospitable to him.

 

When you travel enough, you realize, we may have our differences, but we are all human beings, be tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.

 

Abraham’s world of freedom included the sinners of Soddom of Gemorah. They too deserved a chance.

 

Maybe it was a test

 

Are We Going to Sound the Shofar to Welcome or to Exclude?

 

It can go both ways.

 

God does do both.

 

God waits to see.

 

But the first choice is difficult despite of how deeply we understand what it means to be a stranger.

 

How embedded being the stranger is in our Jewish story.

 

For a people with a Holy Land promised to us, we have spent a lot of time outside of that land.

 

We are experienced strangers, foreigners, and immigrants,

 

Hebrew, ivrit, from laavor, means to cross over, to pass through. For much of history throughout the lands of our exile, it was our name. An apt name for others to call us.

 

So much so that when other people find themselves on the road they ask us for advice. When the Tibetans were exiled from Tibet they asked a delegation of Jews, how did you survive? One of the answers was the Passover seder.

 

We Understand What it Means to Be the Other

 

Kafka’s metamorphosis, one of the classic short stories that many of us learned in school tells that story. It is about a boy who one day wakes up and has found that he turned into a giant insect. There was such strangeness and terrible anguish and shame, not knowing what to do. What will others think? How will he get out of his room without others noticing?

 

Kafka was an assimilated Jew in Czechoslovakia who was speaking of his experience of alienation in a secular culture that refused to not accept him, because he was biologically Jewish, and now that his section of Jewish society had shed their religious identity, they no longer felt they could return to being observantly Jewish.

 

We know about being the other and the stranger and about the merchant of Venice, and the immoral money-hungry Jew, Shylock. I remember learning it as a teenager thinking – is this how we were perceived? There was a corner of my mind that thought – is this who we are?

 

The Eternal Jew of the Nazi propaganda movies is of rats infesting other countries.

 

All the way back to the Egyptians in the Book of Exodus who thought, what if the Jews conspire against us and help our enemies wage war against us? There we were in Babylon, standing weeping by its rivers for our ancient homeland, through medieval Europe.

 

How painful it is for a child to have to fight to get to school every morning, whether in Poland (we have all heard those stories), Persia (I have heard that first hand from a good friend here who did that every day), or the United States, or here in Chicago, even the father of a member here, zichorno livracha. Living always in fear of losing what little dignity and rights you have. And for many Jews through the centuries it was living in fear of losing your life.

 

We understand the other. We are the Other.

 

That comes with great weight and responsibility.

 

To watch out for others who are also strangers. Not to forget, do not oppress the stranger because you were strangers in Egypt.

 

Do Not Oppress the Stranger

 

Even when we are proud of one mitzvah, like Abraham who opened his tent, we must not rest on our laurels. We must do our best to go fight for others, whoever they are, despite their limitations, and their sins.

 

Knowing how hard it is, because the other instinct of ours says – nobody did it for us, why should we do it for them?

 

That is when we sound the shofar of freedom to remind us.

 

We also know that to be the Other is to stand on a slanted roof, under the weather, snow or rain or heat, or gloom of night, trying to keep our balance, watching out who is coming this way. Trying to balance all of it. And despite it all - To live a normal life.

 

You cannot just spend your life in fear – even on the roof – play the fiddle.

 

You build a life, you tell a song.

 

In the end, you realize, that song is a very beautiful song. The song of the poor fiddler on the roof. The song, the sound of a deep life, and deep humanity, is the sound of us crying out to the Universe. It is the sound that can change the world.

 

A touch can push them off.

 

I don’t need this – enough anti-Semitism - how easy it is for a majority to despite a minority and to see them as different, inhuman.

 

We’ve been pushed out from almost every country, again and again, expulsion, from Spain, France, England, Germany.

 

Sometimes new doors opened and others they did not. There were no doors open to welcome us…

 

But we continued to play our song.

 

We learned not only to not mistreat the stranger. We already knew that.

 

We learned that difficult circumstances, being forever outside of your element and the comfort of home, also creates a beautiful song.

 

Creativity, soulfulness, ingenuity, resilience, closeness, self-understanding, and hopefully compassion arises from that experience.

 

We Learned that Strangers Give

 

It is worthwhile to open your arms to them.

 

In this room is a dreamer, born to illegal immigrants, who went to Harvard.

 

When we finally were able to create a state for the Jews, we did not establish quotas on immigration.

 

Yes, you have to be Jewish, but there is a wide berth of what that means for immigration purposes, such as having at least one Jewish grandparent.

 

Every wave that arrives we say with anticipation, and truthfully some dread, what will they bring to us?

 

There were so many immigrants from the educated Ashkenazim and the pious Yemenites, to the violin-carrying Russians and the ancient Ethiopian Jews.

 

Yes, its not always been that simple.

 

See what it has created.

 

In that big mess of a country, where almost everyone, their parents, or grandparents, great grandparents, came from somewhere else.

 

Jews are first in the world per capita for higher educational degrees.

Jews are second in the world for start ups, gross figures, not per capita, as well as the

second biggest presence on the stock exchange outside of North America. Jews are leaders in the medical field, in the high tech field, in agriculture, in renewal energy…

 

Once we get used to them, we try to bring everyone into the family.

 

We believe in our heart that everyone deserves a place to thrive.

 

Sometimes when we are off the roof playing the fiddle for a while, we forget what it is like.

 

We need the Torah to remind us.

 

Do not mistreat the stranger.

 

Do not forget.

 

They are strangers now. You were the stranger before. Soon, who knows?

 

The great irony of do not mistreat the stranger is for most of our history, we have been unable to practice this most important of mitzvot because we were the strangers.

 

But now, in America, in Israel, we have the great zechut, the great merit, the great spiritual opportunity of fulfilling a mitzvah that is counted again and again in our Torah.

 

We live with this wonderful opportunity.

 

To fulfill this deep part of our DNA, of who we are.

 

Where We Come From

 

Abraham ha ivro, the Hebrew.

 

We must open our tent and treat others with kindness.

 

To even stand by the entrance waiting to see whom will come.

 

To come and tell those who feel different that we hear them, we also know what it feels like and we will stand with them if needed - on that slanted roof. Because we also know how beautiful their song is, even if they themselves do not know it yet.

 

Together, one step at a time, one step closer to sounding the shofar of a new world, a world of freedom.

 

Yes, we have to be practical. Judaism is a pragmatic religion. We have priorities. There are limitations. We must feed our families first. Judaism teaches us to feed the poor of your city first.

 

Should we forget our ideals? Our story? Abraham? Where we come from? Egypt. What it means to be a Jew?

 

Not fulfill the great mitzvah of the Torah? Forget where we were not so long ago?

 

Forget our own role in sounding the shofar of freedom, our little part of it?

 

This is why at Temple Har Zion we have a project to send backpacks to the border to help those who crossed and have been accepted as asylum seekers but lost everything in the interim process. We have been packing toothbrushes, tissues, bottles of water…. We invite you to keep giving to that initiative. There is more information on our website.

 

It is why several years ago, I helped organized the local clergy of River Forest to make our village into a welcoming village.

 

And that is why we helped the refugees from Syria in Lesbos through IsraAID.

I spoke to IsraAID last year and learned that our small community was more generous than congregations many times our size. They said we have a unique relationship. The Cantor’s step-daughter Giuliana was there with ISraAID over the summer doing this holy work. And we continue to work with IsraAID.

 

We are doing this here at Temple Har Zion – as Jews, not members of a political party.

 

We must continue to find ways for us to help. There is much left to do.

 

Because Rosh Hashanah is a time for forgiveness.

 

We ask for forgiveness from the people that we have wronged. We forgive those whom have wronged us.

 

Perhaps we can let it enter our hearts to find forgiveness for desperate people who did all kinds of things to make their way into this land. To find refuge. To do what they thought was best for their children and grandchildren.

 

This land, too - America -- is the land of strangers.

 

It is embedded in our character and in our charter.

 

Here It Is, A Double Mitzvah

 

We who have thrived here know we have that opportunity, and it is almost as if it is our land.

 

We know our origins -- few of us here are more than a few generations removed from immigrations.

 

We remember that we are the children and grandchildren of the ones who made it.

 

We appreciate the desire for a better life.

 

We understand what it is to be a stranger, to be other. To fear for your safety and well being.

 

Most of all – we strive to better internalize the commandment to love the stranger, even when it is hard.

 

Even as we know it is an ideal to aspire to.

 

And we know it cannot always translate to the reality of this world.

 

Better here or before? Judaism is a very pragmatic religion.

 

It also states, you must help your family first, and then your community, and then your city, and then the outside world.

 

Yet to save one life is to save the world.

 

Ve Avraham avar et haaretz.

 

Abraham crossed the land.

 

Do not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in Egypt.

 

Befriend the Stranger

 

If only the Egyptians had been willing to take that risk of befriending us and not losing themselves to fear, what could have been?

 

On Rosh Hashannah, we sound the shofar of freedom. Of our belief that our role in this world is to herald a world of freedom one year closer!

 

We contemplate long journeys and where we come from.

 

We reflect on finding forgiveness in our hearts,

 

We celebrate the power of new beginnings.

 

We open our hearts to those in need of our love and kindness.

 

We stand by the entrance of our tent, kekhom hayom, in the heat of the day, looking out for the stranger in our midst

 

ShanahTovah!

Thu, December 3 2020 17 Kislev 5781