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Embracing the Stranger by Looking Within

Embracing the stranger is an endeavor that requires not just outward action, but internal effort on many levels. Both as individuals and communities, real inclusion involves rethinking of boundaries.

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Human, Why Do You Sleep?

Papercut of selichot verse Human why do you sleep?

This papercut by Rabbi Kelilah Miller centers around the piyyut (liturgical poem) from the selichot service:

?בן אדם מה לך נרדם
Human, why do you sleep?

Awakening to our need for re-connection and forgiveness is partially a reawakening to the strangeness of our dislocation from the Blessed Holy One, and to the strangeness of the inner cry that we silence most of the time in order to function.

The figure is impassive, with eyes closed, but prayerful hands reach out from inside the heart-space, reaching towards the world. The inner awakening stirs up an awakening in the tree (of Life? Of Knowledge?), which leafs out to reach back towards the figure. The city-scape in the background is the context of the social world - the world of tightly-packed relationships and our fraught relationship with the earth and its resources. 

Strange Thoughts: A New Take on Loving the Stranger

When newspaper style guides started adopting “they ” and “their” as singular, gender-neutral pronouns a friend told me, “I get why this should be done. It is the right thing to do. But it is going to be really hard for me to switch. It is not going to just roll off my tongue.” His words reminded me of someone who was on a rabbi search committee who was interviewing female rabbis for the first time, who confided, “I know I should give these women a fair shake, but it is not how I grew up. When I close my eyes and picture a rabbi, I see a beard and hear a man’s voice. If I do this I will be going against my gut feeling and not just now but for years when I will see them on the bimah.” Both these people made a significant effort to adjust their own thoughts and words and what go against what felt “natural,” to do what was difficult and unfamiliar because they wanted to bring forward a more just world.

During the Passover season we hear a lot about the biblical verses commanding us to love the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:33–34 and Deuteronomy 10:18–19). These verses have been used for generations to underline our Jewish obligation to care for the oppressed and marginalized and to advocate for refugees and immigrants.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks discusses how these verses refer not only to our actions but to our words, thoughts, and emotions. He writes that God wants us to “fight the hatred in our hearts,” as our inclination at first is not to love the stranger, but to fear or hate them.

Extending this metaphorical reading of these verses suggests that it is not just “strange” people that we need to accept despite our prejudices, but to create positive change we need to embrace unfamiliar ideas and habits of mind. For justice to proceed, we must allow in thoughts that are unfamiliar and ways of talking and acting that at first seem strange to us.

The ethicist Moses Pava writes that the commandment to love the stranger “challenges the very notion of a static and unchanging community” because it asks us to continually broaden our notion of community, which also forces us “to transcend our current conceptions of who ‘we’ are.” He observes that to love the stranger we must transgress the status quo. Since the commandment is one that we are always obliged to do, it means we cannot allow ourselves to be comfortable once we have alleviated one form of oppression, but once comfortable with our new reality, push ourselves through uncomfortable ways yet again.

Just as every year the haggadah tells us we must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt and were personally redeemed from oppression, so every year we must push ourselves out of our comfort zones and try to embrace new and “strange” habits of mind and thoughts. We cannot rely on what was once difficult and brave for us but is now part of our regular internal conversation or behavior.

It is not enough to have stood with civil rights protests 50 years ago if your community is not supporting Black Lives Matter today. If 30 years ago you began including the matriarchs in your prayers, it may be time to stretch to something like female God language, which might make you feel as uncomfortable now as you did then. If 20 years ago you instituted having men involved in clearing up and washing the seder dishes, it is time to examine the cleaning, shopping, cooking, and meal-planning. If you once championed inclusion at your JCC by having ramps and accessible washrooms, it is time to turn your eye to access to programming. Loving the stranger means stretching to new and previously uncomfortable places. For the child of the stranger becomes as a native-born and the strange new words that we stumble through with brave intention but slower speech flow easily off the tongues of our children.

A Stranger in Two Communities: Second-Generation American and Jewish Convert

Perhaps, for some people, the decision to convert to Judaism comes in a Road-to-Damascus moment (to mix religious metaphors)—all of a sudden, you know that you want to be a Jew. That was not what happened in my life.

I came to conversion through long and slow exposure. I grew up Unitarian, but my mother had Jewish grandparents and made sure that we knew and respected some of their traditions and foods, just as she made sure that I knew something about my father’s family’s Hinduism. I grew up in a town that had a large Jewish population, and so, not only was school closed for the High Holidays, but I have clear memories of lighting the hanukiyah with my friend Heather and attending seders with my friend Nat’s big extended family. As an adult, I spent several years with a Jewish housemate—living in a house with a mezuzah on the door and helping to cook the occasional Shabbat dinner. My years of living adjacent to Judaism, as a guest in Jewish space, caused me to feel more comfortable in Jewish communities than I was in most other communities that I visited. I slowly came to think that I wanted to live my life in Jewish community and for Jewish religious practice to inform my days.

It was an interesting choice, because many of the things that I wanted from Judaism—a robust religious practice, a philosophical tradition with which I could engage, the option of doing both of those things without embracing a belief in God—were equally available to me in Hinduism, the tradition in which my father was raised. I think that I turned to Judaism rather than to Hinduism because, even though I am half Indian, and half of my family is Hindu, Judaism felt more familiar. It was more like home. In Hindu settings, I always felt at fault. My father’s family often criticized me for not being Indian enough and got frustrated when I made basic etiquette mistakes. I was born into the first generation of U.S.-born children, in an immigrant community that did not necessarily know what it meant to be raising their children in the United States. My sister and I were the children of an American mother. Simply by embodying her culture and her traditions, we embodied the assimilation that the Indian community feared. As Jumpha Lahiri’s stories of Indian immigration demonstrate, in some ways, the immigrant experience makes parents and children strangers to each other, and my sister and I threw that into sharp relief, and so, we were strangers who were never fully embraced.

If, in Hindu communities, I was never Indian enough, in Jewish communities, I was not a stranger. Rather, I was treated as a welcome guest. People made a point of translating Hebrew prayers or of explaining traditions. As long as I was a guest, my ignorance was not a problem.

Because the process was slow and because Judaism was familiar, I did not realize the extent to which becoming Jewish would end up feeling like I was embracing the stranger. And since I thought of the conversion as acknowledging changes that I had already experienced, I did not realize how much it would, in the end, change me. I also did not realize that when I converted, I would begin to experience in Jewish spaces the same alienation I had experienced in Hindu spaces.

As a Jew of color I am now used to other Jews trying to establish whether or not I am, in fact, a stranger. When I was a Unitarian visiting a Jewish space, it was not alienating when people asked me whether I was Jewish. The answer was no. But now, when I say yes, they sometimes ask: were you raised Jewish? And I know that sometimes there is stigma should I answer no. Ironically, when I was a guest, I was a welcome stranger. Now that I am a convert, and no longer technically a stranger, I often feel much less embraced.

In addition, the Judaism that I knew, and that had made Judaism feel familiar, was the Judaism of the home, and of the not-terribly-observant-largely-secular Jewish world. Conversion requires immersion not just in the mikveh but also in a synagogue community. When I entered Jewish life, and did so in the Reconstructionist movement, I discovered a style of worship that felt different from sitting in the Unitarian congregations of my childhood. I discovered that the entire room bowed and swayed together, according to an unwritten set of stage directions. I did not know how they had all learned to move in exactly the same ways, but I felt like a stranger, an interloper. And because I did not know how to move, I also felt like the entire room could tell that I was out of place. And so I copied people, and eventually, I figured out how to cheat. I bought a siddur and I took it to my friend Heather, she of the Hanukkah candles. In the faintest of pencil markings, she wrote in stage directions. Bow here, straighten there. Rise up on your toes, take three steps forward, take three steps back. At first I learned how to pass. I imagined that I would always be faking.

But just last Shabbat, I went to a friend’s adult bar mitzvah. He is also a convert, celebrating a bar mitzvah to mark his 50th birthday. He is also Indian. I have known him and his family all of my life. In his childhood home, I was never judged for not being Indian enough. His family answered my questions, but they also loved and accepted me for the cultural mash-up that I was. At his bar mitzvah, my friend asked me to sit with his mother and move her through the service. And now, I know when to stand and sit, how to move. I am Indian and Jewish, celebrating someone who has also found a way to combine those elements of his identity.

I am Indian, but I am also someone who grew up Unitarian. And in becoming Jewish, Unitarian spaces—once the place where I felt most at home—have become just a little bit strange. The last time I went to church with my mother, I accidently flipped the pages in the hymnal from right to left, as if it were a siddur. Judaism had ceased to be strange, but in that process, I became a stranger to my childhood religion. I am deeply comfortable in that world, except that I no longer quite fit—I turn the pages the wrong way.

The fact that Unitarian space no longer quite fits doesn’t mean, however, that I always feel like I belong in Jewish space. Whenever I take on a new Jewish practice, there is that sense of faking. Whenever I move to a new community, where I don’t know the melodies or a prayer is used that I have not heard before, I feel like I am a stranger, once again. I imagine that born-Jews also have that feeling, especially if they grew up secular, but for me, those feelings always remind me that I am a convert, a stranger.

And in that experience, I can better understand one of the key truths of my father’s immigrant community, a place that insisted on making me a stranger, rather than welcoming me as a guest. They too had all made choices much like mine—leaving a home, and in the case of my father’s generation of highly professional Indian immigrants, a very comfortable home—for a new one. But immigration is not being a guest—it is making a new life, in a place where, on some level, you are always a stranger. In some ways, the space I inhabit today, as a convert, as a Jew of Color, gives me more insight into the Hindu community, which I never quite felt welcomed me. Like my immigrant parent, I have made myself a stranger in my community of origin, while remaining something of a stranger in my community of choice. In that dual displacement, I have more in common than I ever expected to have with my immigrant relatives. 

Psalm 27

לְדָוִ֨ד ׀ יְהוָ֤ה ׀ אוֹרִ֣י וְ֭יִשְׁעִי מִמִּ֣י אִירָ֑א יְהוָ֥ה מָֽעוֹז־חַ֝יַּ֗י מִמִּ֥י אֶפְחָֽד׃

Awareness is sunlight in the mind. No one can take that from me. Awareness is my life’s stronghold. It absorbs all fear.

בִּקְרֹ֤ב עָלַ֨י ׀ מְרֵעִים֮ לֶאֱכֹ֪ל אֶת־בְּשָׂ֫רִ֥י צָרַ֣י וְאֹיְבַ֣י לִ֑י הֵ֖מָּה כָשְׁל֣וּ וְנָפָֽלוּ׃

The hindrances and defilements are as close as my flesh and mind, but they dissolve in the light of being known.

אִם־תַּחֲנֶ֬ה עָלַ֨י ׀ מַחֲנֶה֮ לֹֽא־יִירָ֪א לִ֫בִּ֥י אִם־תָּק֣וּם עָ֭לַי מִלְחָמָ֑ה בְּ֝זֹ֗את אֲנִ֣י בוֹטֵֽחַ׃

Even though I feel assaulted by hostile forces, my heart remains confident, balanced and patient.

אַחַ֤ת ׀ שָׁאַ֣לְתִּי מֵֽאֵת־יְהוָה֮ אוֹתָ֪הּ אֲבַ֫קֵּ֥שׁ שִׁבְתִּ֣י בְּבֵית־יְ֭הוָה כָּל־יְמֵ֣י חַיַּ֑י לַחֲז֥וֹת בְּנֹֽעַם־יְ֝הוָ֗ה וּלְבַקֵּ֥ר בְּהֵיכָלֽוֹ׃

I seek only one thing, one thing alone: to connect to this moment. Nowhere else. Only this. Nothing less. My palace in time.

כִּ֤י יִצְפְּנֵ֨נִי ׀ בְּסֻכֹּה֮ בְּי֪וֹם רָ֫עָ֥ה יַ֭סְתִּרֵנִי בְּסֵ֣תֶר אָהֳל֑וֹ בְּ֝צ֗וּר יְרוֹמְמֵֽנִי׃

When difficulties arise, I have a hiding place in my own heart— a secret tent where I can go and feel safe, a rock to rest my head upon.

וְעַתָּ֨ה יָר֪וּם רֹאשִׁ֡י עַ֤ל אֹֽיְבַ֬י סְֽבִיבוֹתַ֗י וְאֶזְבְּחָ֣ה בְ֭אָהֳלוֹ זִבְחֵ֣י תְרוּעָ֑ה אָשִׁ֥ירָה וַ֝אֲזַמְּרָ֗ה לַיהוָֽה׃

Greed, hatred, and delusion don’t stop coming, but when they are met with a spacious heart, they don’t stick around. Leaving me so grateful, I want to sing out loud:

שְׁמַע־יְהוָ֖ה קוֹלִ֥י אֶקְרָ֗א וְחָנֵּ֥נִי וַעֲנֵֽנִי׃

Listen, world! The power of love sets me free.

לְךָ֤ ׀ אָמַ֣ר לִ֭בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ׃

When I turn to face my heart—then everyone and everything is revealed. 

אַל־תַּסְתֵּ֬ר פָּנֶ֨יךָ ׀ מִמֶּנִּי֮ אַֽל־תַּט־בְּאַ֗ף עַ֫בְדֶּ֥ךָ עֶזְרָתִ֥י הָיִ֑יתָ אַֽל־תִּטְּשֵׁ֥נִי וְאַל־תַּֽ֝עַזְבֵ֗נִי אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעִֽי

Let this truth not be hidden from me. If only I could remember always what seems so clear right now. Wisdom would guide my every moment. 

כִּי־אָבִ֣י וְאִמִּ֣י עֲזָב֑וּנִי וַֽיהוָ֣ה יַֽאַסְפֵֽנִי׃

Awareness and compassion would be a father and a mother to me. 

ה֤וֹרֵ֥נִי יְהוָ֗ה דַּ֫רְכֶּ֥ךָ וּ֭נְחֵנִי בְּאֹ֣רַח מִישׁ֑וֹר לְ֝מַ֗עַן שׁוֹרְרָֽי׃

But I can follow the guidance of those who have walked this path before. 

אַֽל־תִּ֭תְּנֵנִי בְּנֶ֣פֶשׁ צָרָ֑י כִּ֥י קָֽמוּ־בִ֥י עֵֽדֵי־שֶׁ֝֗קֶר וִיפֵ֥חַ חָמָֽס׃

Trying to stay alert to the obstacles along the way because delusion and hatred aren’t disappearing so fast. 

לוּלֵא הֶ֭אֱמַנְתִּי לִרְא֥וֹת בְּֽטוּב־יְהוָ֗ה בְּאֶ֣רֶץ חַיִּֽים׃

Still, I affirm my faith in the power of goodness. 

קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְה֫וָ֥ה חֲ֭זַק וְיַאֲמֵ֣ץ לִבֶּ֑ךָ וְ֝קַוֵּ֗ה אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃

May we take courage; may we be strong; may our hearts be so filled with love there is no room for anything else! May we see the arising and passing of all conditioned things. May we open to the Unconditioned: Y*H*V*H

What Are You Asking For? A Meditation on Psalm 27

(A guided meditation on Psalm 27, from God Loves the Stranger: Stories, Poems, Prayers)


One thing I ask of Adonai, only that do I seek.

Imagine if you could ask one thing of Adonai.

Imagine if reality, life, all the power and resources in existence could grant you one thing and one thing alone.

(Pause) Take a few deep belly breaths.

For this moment let your thoughts float freely.

What would it be?

Just for now, open your mind to the endless possibilities that could be incorporated into this singular ask.

Would you ask for some thing? Some person? Health? Wealth? Power? An Experience?

Or would you ask for qualities of heart and mind? Intelligence? Skill? Courage? Patience? Honor? Freedom? Well-being? Love?

Psalm 27 is recited from the beginning of the last month before the New Year, the month of Elul, all the way until Hoshana Rabbah in the midst of Succot. It is a time of asking and seeking. It is a time to get clear.

What do I really want? What do I really seek?

The High Holy Days (and everything that leads into them) are non-historical and personal Jewish time. They are all about us as individuals. It is not so much about the Jewish people and their movement in history. It is not like Passover in that way. It is all about us. It is all up to us. What are we asking for?

The psalmist answered like this:

Shivti b’veit Adonai kol Yimei Chayai

Lachzot b’noam Adonai ul’vakeir b’heichalo.


To live in the house of Adonai all the days of my life

To gaze upon the beauty of Adonai, and to frequent God’s temple.

Do you know where the house of Adonai exists?

Can you describe the beauty of Adonai?

Do you know what it means to frequent God’s temple?


What would it mean for me to ask to live in the house of Adonai?

Is it a house with a roof, walls, and a door?

Is it a way of being? A way of feeling?

Is it a way to know that I am whole, free, loved, and safe?


What would it mean to gaze on the beauty of Adonai?

Is that everywhere or somewhere special?

Is that an internal beauty or an external beauty?

What kind of eyes can see the beauty of Adonai?


Where is God’s temple? Is it a building? A place? A time? Is it a church, synagogue, mosque, or zendo? Is it a mountain peak or jungle or a rushing river? Is it an orphanage or hospital? Is this God’s temple?

What does it mean to live in the house of Adonai?

Is it a sense of being fully alive and never separate?

Is it something like being found and returned home and never feeling lost again?

What are your questions?

What are you asking for?

Hagar the Stranger

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it, Ben Bag Bag taught about studying the Torah. Reflect on it, pore over it, grow old and gray with it, for there is no better reward than this. Well, I’m not gray yet, but I sure am getting older, and bald already happened. And with age maybe I’m starting to repeat myself more, but I’ll tell you again: Ben Bag Bag, the ancient sage with the best alliterative name, was a wise man. The Torah continues to reveal its deep wisdom to me, and ever-greater connecting patterns of meaning unfold before me. It turns out that the Torah’s major themes, its central messages, reverberate throughout the text, like themes and variations in a symphony. The more attuned I become to a great symphony, the more awed I become by the genius of the composer, and ever more uplifted. So it is that as I embrace the genius of the Torah, its great moral themes resound and reverberate in unanticipated and compelling ways.

In the special Torah reading assigned for the first day of Rosh Hashanah we are thrust into the drama of the life of Abraham and Sarah and their family, Hagar the Egyptian maidservant and her son Ishmael, and Sarah’s miracle baby Isaac. Every year we return to these 21 verses, and to our “first family.” This year I find myself drawn to Hagar, for I noticed something that I am sure many have noticed before me, but I only saw it for the first time. All names are meaningful and symbolic in the Torah, although some of the meanings have become lost to us across the millennia. Because the Torah is written without vowels, it is possible to pronounce the words in multiple ways, and this is a key to finding implied meanings. So, the name Hagar can also be read ha-ger, the stranger, the foreigner, the Other. Then, instead of “Hagar hamitzrit,” Hagar the Egyptian, we read “Ha-ger hamitzrit,” the stranger from Egypt. Hagar is now no longer merely an individual character, she is the first appearance of perhaps the key archetype of the Torah: the stranger. And she becomes the first example of one of the Torah’s great questions: How do we treat the stranger?

The Torah is an ongoing call to moral responsibility. When Cain kills his brother Abel, and then asks defiantly, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” his question resounds to this day. But for me what raises the Torah to the sublime is that it is not satisfied with the imperative of caring for one’s kin. The Torah insists that the well being of the stranger is our responsibility, too. The well being of the stranger is a much more difficult assignment to grasp, let alone to care about. There is an obvious self-interest in caring about our kin: we need them to also care about us. But the stranger? What possible interest might we have in the stranger? Yet our Torah insists that we regard the stranger with as much concern as we regard our own. It begins with the fundamental premise of Genesis, that every human is created in the image of the divine, and builds its moral case from there. Then, the Torah places as its central narrative our own experience as strangers, oppressed in the land of Egypt. We cry out, and the Creator hears our cry, the cry of the powerless. And because we are created in the divine image, we are forever after called upon to emulate our Creator, and therefore to hear the cry of the powerless. The Torah repeats the instruction to care for the stranger at least 33 times, far more than any other commandment in the Torah. It seems to me that when a rule is repeated over and over and over again, it is not only because it is important, it is because people are having trouble following the instruction! We are terrible at following the instruction of caring for the stranger. Again, what’s in it for us? And so, God calls upon us repeatedly to develop empathy: do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

How do we develop empathy? How do we identify with the powerless, whom the Torah typically refers to as the stranger, the slave, the orphan, and the widow?

Which brings us back to Hagar. She is the first stranger in the Torah. She is also a maidservant, a slave. And she is an Egyptian. In the worldview of the Torah, the harmful actions we perpetrate upon others invariably redound back upon us. Many readers have wondered about the cruelty of this story: after Sarah’s son Isaac is weaned, Sarah sees Ishmael, Hagar’s son, laughing or playing with Isaac, and she says to Abraham, “Get rid of this servant and her son!” Sarah seems petty, Abraham passive, and worst of all, God tells Abraham to do as Sarah says! But this is more than an ancient family drama with an inscrutable deity making capricious demands. The treatment that Abraham and Sarah perpetrate upon Hagar the Egyptian and her son Ishmael sets into motion the events that will eventually lead the descendants of Abraham’s other son Isaac to become strangers and slaves themselves in the land of Egypt. And without our sojourn in Egypt, our people’s deepest wisdom, our mature empathy, could never have been formed.

Remember, the Torah is about each of us. That is why we are still studying it. And when I examine my life, I am always faced with the fact that whatever wisdom I have distilled from this roller coaster of life is a result of lessons learned from my suffering. We look back on our lives, and sometimes we are able to say, you know if I hadn’t had to get clean, or been through that illness, or had to deal with my crazy parent, I might never have learned compassion, or understood humility, or found my voice… Or, as the Torah puts it, “remember the long road on which YHVH, Life Unfolding, led you these 40 years in the wilderness, in order to test you, to find out what was in your hearts.” Recently I was complimenting a friend who had given me good advice. I said, “How did you get so wise?” She hesitated and laughed, and then I answered for her and said: “Oh, I know: the hard way!” Or as the Torah puts it, we were forged in the blast furnace of Egypt, the hard way. We pray for the strength, courage, faith, and plain old luck not to be crushed by our struggles, but to learn and grow from them.

Our story also introduces the central element of the Jewish understanding of God. It is not an assertion that can be proven, yet the Torah assumes it is so: YHVH, the Creator, hears the cry of the oppressed and the powerless, and is with them. When Moses first encounters YHVH at the burning bush, and asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Children of Israel from Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11) God does not exhort Moses that Moses is up to the job. Rather God promises to be with Moses: “And God said, ‘I will be with you – ehyeh imach – that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you.” (Ex. 3:12) In the next verse Moses asks what is God’s name, in case the people ask Moses who sent him. God reveals the name Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh (I will be that I will be), and then adds “Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel: ‘Ehyeh sent me to you!’ (Ex. 3:14) So, one of God’s names is Ehyeh, “I Will Be,” and it echoes the previous verse, “I will be with you!” We might say that one of God’s names, and certainly one God’s attributes, is I Will Be With You.

When Hagar and Ishmael are cast out into the wilderness, and the lad is dying of thirst and crying, Hagar goes and sits a bowshot away so that she will not have to listen to the cries of the child as he perishes, and she weeps. “And God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said: What troubles you Hagar? Do not fear! For God has heard the cry of the boy in the place where he is.” In the Torah, the stranger is usually included in a grouping with the widow and the orphan. In the ancient agricultural and patriarchal clan society of Israel, these were the truly powerless: the stranger had no land holding, and no protector, and neither did the widow or the orphan (referring here to a child without a father). The stranger, the orphan, and the widow, and also the slave, had no political power or legal recourse. They were truly at the mercy of others. In our story, Hagar and Ishmael embody all aspects of this powerless condition: Hagar is a stranger, a slave, and effectively a widow, her son an orphan. And God hears their cry. Ishmael’s name means “God hears,” just as God’s name means “I will be with you.”

If we are created in the Divine image, then we must find in ourselves the capacity for mercy, the capacity to hear the cry of the powerless and to respond with care.

Throughout the Torah, whenever we are called upon to care for the disenfranchised and the stranger, there is no direct consequence that is threatened if we do not. For what can the powerless do to us? Instead the Torah can only assert relentlessly that God hears the cries of the powerless, that we should revere and be in awe of God, and that therefore we should also have mercy upon them, for we were once powerless in the land of Egypt. Does God hear their cry? I honestly don’t know. But I cherish my tradition that insists that in order to fulfill our destiny as human beings we need to hear and respond to the cry of the weak. Perhaps, as many before me have suggested, the God of righteousness and justice exists, but only in potential. Perhaps it is only through our own righteous and compassionate actions that the glory of God becomes manifest in the world.

This teaching reaches its pinnacle in the very center of the Torah, Parshat Kedoshim in the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus. The parshah begins with the familiar call to emulate the divine “You shall be holy, for I YHVH your God am holy.” The instructions then climax with verse 19, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the Golden Rule, the heart of the Torah. But remember the saying I began with: “Turn it and turn it for everything is in it”? I have always focused on verse 19, for what could be more central to our quest? But one day, I turned the Torah a bit and verse 33 lit up before me: “When a stranger dwells with you in your land, do not oppress him. Treat the stranger like a fellow citizen; you shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am YHVH your God.”

V’ahavta et ha-ger kamocha. Love the stranger as yourself. Our Torah gives us two explicit commands: Love your neighbor as yourself, and love the stranger as yourself. The Torah’s grasp of human nature is complete. We know intuitively that loving our neighbor as ourselves, difficult as that might be, is in our own interest. Any social group thrives when its members take each other’s interests to heart, when we curb selfishness in favor of a common good. But the injunction to love the stranger as yourself asks us to rise to an even higher level: there is no consequence to us if the stranger is ignored. We turn our eyes toward them simply because they are God’s children. To love the stranger represents an outrageous leap out of the typical moral economy, in which we do kindnesses and expect to be repaid in kind. In loving the stranger, we transcend self-interest.

This is the demand of Judaism: to rise above our nature and create a new way of being. In an earlier time, when communities were smaller and self-contained, this holy task was more limited, for the stranger was by definition someone who had wandered into your community. The law did not pertain to an unknown soul in another land. That task of inclusion was difficult enough, which is perhaps why the Torah repeats the command three dozen times. Today the challenge is multiplied exponentially. We live in a world in which we can call a technical help line and find ourselves speaking with someone in India – or Mauritius, as happened to me recently! We live in a world in which it becomes clearer, shall I say starker, almost daily that our individual fates are intertwined, whether we would like them to be or not. We live in a nation that was built on the premise that a society could be built of strangers, each given inalienable rights. A songwriter named Betsy Rose wrote the lyric: “We may have come here in different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.” Never has the commandment to treat the stranger as one of your own been more pressing. But that doesn’t make it any easier, only more urgent.

There is, as we know, only one place to practice this radical demand of empathy. Right here, right now, in the place where you are. Our high-minded ideas of the unity of the planet are not worth the paper we write them on if we do not enact our principles where we live. So rather than drawing a tight circle that includes the people we know and leaves others on the outside, let’s draw as big a circle as we can around us that includes not just Sarah and Isaac, but Hagar and Ishmael, the stranger, the weak, the newcomer, the odd, the gentile, the Jew who doesn’t think he or she belongs, the people we just plain disagree with, the other. Even if it makes us uncomfortable some of the time. Even if we’re not very good at it. For in so doing we will be fulfilling the highest aspiration of our tradition – we will be realizing our divine nature.

Julia Boylan shared a famous verse with me when I was discussing these questions a few weeks ago. I’ll close with it. It is called “Outwitted” by Edwin Markham:

He drew a circle that shut me out –
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

May we all draw that big circle in our lives this year, drawing others into it with love. And remember, whenever you draw a circle around you, you are at the center. That is where change begins. You have my love, support, and total encouragement to draw your circle wide, and to know that you are a vessel for making the divine promise of empathy manifest in the world. L’Shana tova tikateivu.

The Shofar and the Tears of Our Mothers

(from God Loves the Stranger)

We begin our Jewish year on Rosh Hashanah by listening attentively to hear shofar sounds. We conclude the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year, with a shofar blast. Jewish tradition equates the sound of the shofar with the cries of mothers: The mother of Israel’s enemy Sisera and the wailing of the mother of Israel, Sarah, are both represented in the sounds of the shofar. Mothers’ tears, filled with love, filled with grief, contain every conflicting emotion in the human soul. It doesn’t matter if these mothers are friends or enemies. Their pain knows no borders. It is the pain of the mother of us all, this Earth, as the glaciers melt into her tears. It is a feeling of compassion, for the mother knows no divisions and no judgments and no politics. We are not asked to resolve anything. We are asked to open to hear the pain, whether it is the pain of our own lives or the pain of the other; the pain of our enemy or friend; the pain of our tribe or the pain of the world. No matter. It is all pain; it is as wordless as the shofar and as raw. It is a series of oscillating cries— whole, broken, shattered, and whole again. It is our practice. Being with the pain, the sound— only this sound— as it reverberates in our own skin and the skin of the world. This is the healing work that engages us. It takes everything from us, and what does it ask? Most of all it asks us just to be near, to be quiet, to stand, to sit, to walk, to eat, to sleep— in kindness, faithfulness, and peace. We dedicate our practice to all who suffer in this world of endless beauty and glory. May the shofar blast of all the cries of all the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers awaken itself to the Source of Compassion that awakens the world to compassion.


Turning Memory into Empathy: The Torah’s Ethical Charge

One of the Torah’s central projects is to turn memory into empathy and moral responsibility. Appealing to our experience of defenselessness in Egypt, the Torah seeks to transform us into people who see those who are vulnerable and exposed rather than looking past them.

Parashat Mishpatim contains perhaps the most well-known articulation of this charge: “You shall not oppress a stranger (ger), for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9; see also 22:20). By ger, the Torah means one who is an alien in the place where he lives—that is, one who is not a member of the ruling tribe or family, who is not a citizen, and who is therefore vulnerable to social and economic exploitation. The Torah appeals to our memory to intensify our ethical obligations: Having tasted the suffering and degradation to which vulnerability can lead, we are bidden not to oppress the stranger.

The Torah’s call is not based on a rational argument, but on an urgent demand for empathy: Since you know what it feels like to be a stranger, you must never abuse or mistreat the stranger.

This prohibition is so often cited that it’s easy to miss just how radical and non-obvious it is. The Torah could have responded quite differently to the experience of oppression in Egypt. It could have said, Since you were tyrannized and exploited and no one did anything to help you, you don’t owe anything to anyone; how dare anyone ask anything of you? But it chooses the opposite path: Since you were exploited and oppressed, you must never be among the exploiters and degraders. You must remember what it feels like to be a stranger. Empathy must animate and intensify your commitment to the dignity and well-being of the weak and vulnerable. And God holds you accountable to this obligation.

On one level, of course, the Torah is appealing to the collective memory of the Jewish people: The formative story around which we orient our collective life is about our harrowing sojourn in Egypt and our eventual miraculous redemption by God. We should not oppress the stranger because we as a people remember what oppression can mean.

But I would argue that we should also individually personalize the Torah’s demand that we remember. Each of us is obligated, in the course of our lives, to remember times when we have been exploited or abused by those who had power over us. (Such experiences are blessedly rare for some people. Tragically, they are part of the daily bread of others.) From these experiences, the Torah tells us, we are to learn compassion and kindness.

It may be tempting to imagine a Manichean world in which the “good guys” learn compassion from experiences of vulnerability and suffering, while the “bad guys” learn only hostility and xenophobia. But it is far more honest, I think, to wrestle with the ways that each of us often has both responses at the same time: Part of us responds to the experience of suffering by wanting to make sure that no one else has to endure what we did, but another part of us feels entitled and above reproach. If you had been through what I’ve been through, we can hear ourselves saying, you would understand that I don’t owe anybody anything. As Leon Wieseltier once remarked of the Jewish people, “The Holocaust enlarged our Jewish hearts, and it shrunk them.” The Torah challenges us to nurture and cultivate the compassionate response and to make sure that the raging, combative one never becomes an animating principle of our lives.

Where Exodus commands us not to oppress the stranger and ties that obligation to the ways memory can be harnessed to yield empathy, Leviticus goes further, moving from a negative commandment (lo ta’aseh) to a positive one (aseh): “When a stranger resides with 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 the Lord am your God” (Lev. 19:33–34). With these startling words, we have traveled a long distance; we are mandated to actively love the stranger.

A lot can be (and has been) said about what the commandment to love the neighbor (Lev. 19:18) does and doesn’t mean in Leviticus, but one thing is clear: The love we owe to our neighbor we also owe to the stranger who resides among us. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is asked about the reach of the obligation to love your neighbor as yourself: “Who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). Leviticus anticipates the question and offers a stunning response: The stranger is like your neighbor, and what you owe to your own kin you owe to the stranger as well. The Torah forcefully makes clear that the poor and downtrodden, the vulnerable and oppressed, the exposed and powerless are all our neighbors. We are called to love even those who are not our kin, even those who do not share our socioeconomic status, because, after all, we remember only too well what vulnerability feels like.

Deuteronomy subtly introduces still another dimension to our obligation to love the stranger. Along the way it offers a remarkably moving lesson in theology: “For the Lord your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, providing him with food and clothing. You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:17–19). The text begins by praising God as “great, mighty, and awesome.” Of what does God’s greatness, mightiness, and awesomeness consist? According to these verses, not of God’s having created the world, and not of God’s having demonstrated God’s ability to smite God’s enemies. No, God’s grandeur is rooted in God’s fairness (“who shows no favor and takes no bribe”) and in God’s championing the oppressed and the downtrodden.

This is reminiscent of a verse from Psalms that we recite every Shabbat and holiday morning. The verse begins, “All my bones shall say, ‘Lord, who is like You?’” What is the source of God’s incomparable greatness? Again, it is not raw power or might, but rather mercy and care for the vulnerable. “You save the poor from one stronger than he, the poor and needy from his despoiler” (Ps. 35:10). The God Jews worship, in other words, is a God who cares for the distressed and persecuted.

All of this helps us to understand Deuteronomy’s presentation of our obligation to love the stranger. Here loving the stranger is a form of “walking in God’s ways,” or what philosophers call imitatio dei (the imitation of God). Just as God “loves the stranger” (Deut. 10:18), so also must we (10:19). The Torah here presents a radical challenge and obligation: If you want to love God, love those whom God loves. Love the fatherless, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. In other words Deuteronomy gives us two distinct but intertwined reasons for what lies at the heart of Jewish ethics: we must love the stranger both because of who God is and because of what we ourselves have been through.

Exodus teaches us the baseline requirement: not to oppress the stranger. Leviticus magnifies the demand: Not only must we not oppress the stranger, we must actively love the stranger. And Deuteronomy raises the stakes even higher: Loving the stranger is a crucial form of “walking in God’s ways.”

Literature scholar Elaine Scarry hauntingly asserts that “the human capacity to injure other people is very great precisely because our capacity to imagine other people is very small.” By reminding us again and again of our vulnerability in Egypt, the Torah works to help us learn to imagine others more so that we allow ourselves to hurt them less.

The obligation to love and care for the stranger and the dispossessed is a basic covenantal requirement incumbent upon us as Jews. We surely have moral obligations that are incumbent upon us because of the simple fact that we are human beings. In its recurrent appeals to memory, the Torah seeks to amplify and intensify those obligations, to remind us, even when it is difficult to hear, that the fate of the stranger is our responsibility.

This mandate may seem overwhelming at times, and its concrete implications may sometimes be difficult to discern. But loving the stranger is fundamental and lies at the heart of Torah. If we wish to take the obligation to serve God seriously, and to be worthy heirs of the Jewish tradition, we have no choice but to wrestle with these words, and to seek to grow in empathy and compassion.

Excerpted from The Heart of Torah, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus by Shai Held by permission of The Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska Press. ©2017 by Shai Held. Available from the Jewish Publication Society at jps.org, and wherever books are sold, or from 800.848.6224.



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We’d like to offer these further pieces from Ritualwell.org and ReconstructingJudaism.org on the internal work that individual Jews and their communities can do to welcome those who feel estranged.


In addition, we call your attention to this new book, co-edited by Rabbi Mychal Copeland: [amazon:1594736022:inline]