Posts Tagged 'Stranger'

More the Stranger: Returning to the High Holidays and Sinai

Yesterday I got a very sweet message from a childhood friend who had recently lost his mother. He wrote:

I am writing to let you know that I am thinking about you these High Holidays regarding spending your second High Holidays without your Abba. It is very hard for me to think that this is the first year I don’t get to wish my Ima a Shana Tova. Please know that he was so proud of you, he loved you so much, and you have been and always will be to your parents, an exemplary son! Love you my friend! Happy New Year!

I called him right away. Between the years and miles between us I realized that I just needed to hear his voice and thank him. Today I am allowing his words to sink in and I think about who I am this year as compared to last year.

I was thinking about this when reading  Nitzavim,this week’s Torah portion. There we see the Israelites standing at Sinai. We read:

You are standing today, all of you, before HaShem, your God: your leaders, your tribes, your elders, your officers … for you to enter into a covenant with the Lord, your God … in order to establish you today as a people to God and God will be a Lord to you … and God spoke to you and as God swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Not with you alone do I forge this covenant and oath but with whoever is here, standing with us today, before the Lord, your God, And with whoever is not here with us today.” (Excerpts from Deuteronomy 29:9-14)

What does the Torah mean by “whoever is not here”? There was clearly an audience to the Torah at Sinai, how could people who are not there connect to the experience. Rashi comments that this means to also include the generations that will exist in the future. Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash which says:

The souls of all Jews were present at the making of the covenant even before their physical bodies were created. This is why the verse says ‘with us today’ and not ‘standing’ with us today. (Tanchuma, Nitzavim 3)

Thinking about the note from my friend I wanted to offer another reading of what the Torah meant by “whoever is not here”. 

Am I the same person I was last year this time? Last year my father’s passing was all so fresh. Last year was filled with many firsts without him. This year Yizkor will not be a new thing. It is possible that “whoever is not here” is not referring to future generation that have yet to be born, but instead it might be referring to future versions of the people that were actually “standing here today” at Sinai. The covenant was not limited to those people in that state of mind at that moment.

It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “ No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we continue to evolve in its meaning and demand relevance from revelation. When we return to Sinai we are invited to welcome the inner “stranger” 36 times.

What If God Was One of Us

In 1995 Joan Osborn released her one hit song ” What If God Was One of Us.” The song received Grammy nominations in 1996 for Best Female Pop Vocal PerformanceRecord of the Year, and Song of the Year. Written by Eric Bazilian (of The Hooters), the song deals with various aspects of belief in God by asking questions inviting the listener to consider how they might relate to God.  Here is her original vide:

 

All of these years later I have to admit that I still cannot forget the lyrics. The song goes:

What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Tryin’ to make his way home?

How would we experience the corporeality of God?

I was thinking about it while reading Behar Behukotai, this week’s Torah portion. There we read God saying, ” I will walk among you: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.” ( Leviticus 26:12) About this Rashi write:

 

I will walk among you— I will, as it were, walk with you in the Garden of Eden as though I were one of yourselves and you will not be frightened of Me. One might think that this implies: you will not fear (reverence) Me! Scripture however states, “but I will be your God” (Sifra, Bechukotai, Chapter 3 3-4).

I think it is interesting to think about the idea of reverence without being frightened.  Personally, I cannot even imagine the experience of the presence of God in my life. Thinking about these ideas open me to the divine potential of  the “stranger on the bus”.  It does not change my faith or struggle with the idea of God in my life, but it does improve my commute through life.

 

Hands Up Don’t Shoot

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read one of the many times in the about how we are supposed to treat the stranger. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not wrong, neither shalt you oppress him; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way–for if they cry at all unto Me, I will surely hear their cry– My wrath shall wax hot, and I will kill you with the sword; and your wives shall be widows, and your children fatherless. (Exodus 22:20-23)

We are charged to look out for the needs of the stranger for the very reason that we had the same experience.  On this Rashi commented:

for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: If you taunt him, he can also taunt you and say to you, “You too emanate from strangers.” Do not reproach your neighbor with a fault that is also yours (Mechilta, B.M. 59b). Every expression of a stranger (גֵּר) means a person who was not born in that country but has come from another country to sojourn there.

The fact that our national story is born in Diaspora in Egypt means that we have a mandate to relate to other strangers. In light of this I wanted to share these images:

Image result for ferguson hands up boy

We cannot just through our hands up and say that the racial issues in this country are not our problems. We too need to put our hands up and work with those who are estranged by the systems power. We need to do our part to enact a rule of law that treats everyone equally.

In the words of Common in the song Glory from Selma:

Justice for all just ain’t specific enough

That’s why Rosa sat on the bus
That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up
When it go down we woman and man up
They say, “Stay down” and we stand up

We are either part of the solution or we are part of the problem.

The Laws of the Stranger

My friend Rav Aryeh Bernstein recently put together a great event called SermonSlam in Jerusalem. I have been watching the videos online. The event was an amazing mash-up of a groovy spoken word poetry slam and a gevalt Tische. One video that really stood out to me was by the brilliant comedian  Yisrael Campbell. You got to watch it:

He pointed out that most people we know in the Jewish community are complete aliens to the notion of being alienated. While our tradition talks about slavery, today we have no way of relating to that feeling of being a stranger. For a people that always talk about slavery we really do a horrible job in acting on behalf of the stanger.

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about one of the 36 references to our mandate look out for the needs of the alien. There we read:

And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt. ( Exodus 23:9)

Empathy is the root of any ethical system. But if we lost a memory of being slaves how can we fulfill these commandments? Campbell points out that Jewish law did a great job creating law regarding the prohibition of eating milk and meat. Jewish law represents a code of conduct that helps sculpt an ethical life. What Campbell says in jest actually seems like an important plan of action. Why not spell out a code for how we treat the stranger?

Campbell says it so well, “I don’t know what Egypt is, but I know narrowness is and I know what slavery is.” Spelling out a code for how we treat the stranger would help open us up to live the right life.  I have some ideas about how we might work on this project, who wants to help?

Stranger in a Strange Land

In Mishpatim, this week’s Torah portion we read:

And a stranger you shall not oppress; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  And six years you shall sow your land, and gather in the increase thereof; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beast of the field shall eat. In like manner you shall deal with thy vineyard, and with thy olive yard. (Exodus 23:9-11)

What is the connection between being nice to the stranger and keeping the laws of shmittah, letting the fields go fallow on the seventh year?

On the surface, it seems that every seven years we create a welfare state, which provides for the less fortunate. However, on a deeper level we see that the laws of shmittah maintain a feeling of never owning the land. Cycling through this seven-year process, helps us stay in touch with the experience of our own being strangers. Surely, it is wonderful to feel at home. But, in the words of Rabbi Levi Lauer, “Comfort is not a Jewish value.” The experience of alienation once every seven years is supposed to inculcate us with the need to look out for the dispossessed for the following six years. We can never let our experience of comfort overshadow our compassion for the stranger.

It has been 30- years since U2 released “Stranger in a Strange Land” on their album October. The song starts off:

Stranger, stranger in a strange land
He looked at me like I was the one who should run
We asked him to smile for a photograph
Waited a while to see if we could make him laugh

Often we see others as if they are strangers, when in reality it is us ourselves who are the strangers. It seems at its core we have been singing this song for centuries. 

– And I wish you were here


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