Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Embracing the Stranger and One Another

You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt...

In synagogues around the world we are now reading from the section of the Torah which tells of our people's exodus from Egypt - perhaps the most defining moment in Jewish history. In fact, one of our core Jewish values emanates from this verse, connected to our collective experience of having been liberated from Egyptian bondage. We are reminded time and time again to love the stranger, to care about the stranger, for we have been there ourselves.  And as it turns out, this wouldn't be the last time in Jewish history that we would be cast in the role of the stranger. We would go on to find ourselves in that unwelcome role many times throughout our history.

Events of this past week have shined a new light on how we respond to the plight of the stranger, just as they have highlighted the political tensions in our land.  And beyond refugees, we increasingly view anyone with whom we disagree as a stranger, which only serves to pull our country and our people apart from one another.

In today's highly polarized world, rabbis often find themselves pulled in multiple directions at once. Our social media heightens these tensions, making it very easy today for people to vent their righteous indignation upon anyone holding a viewpoint in opposition to their own. This is particularly true in the realm of politics.  Rabbi Yitz Greenberg's well-known adage about Jewish religious movements can easily be applied to political ideologies.  He famously said: "It doesn't matter which Jewish movement you are affiliated with, as long as you're ashamed of it".  And so we could probably all benefit from being a little more introspective when it comes to the bitter political discourse in our country.

We can and should vigorously debate issues, but we should not let our families, our friendships, or our congregations be torn apart by those who would pounce on anyone who dares to deviate from their own political orthodoxies. We all need to be vigilant to ensure that our internal divisions don't consume us, which is why rabbis usually seek to avoid discussing politics from the pulpit.

And yet, rabbis should feel empowered to address the universal values rooted in our Torah that bind us together as Jews.

One of our most deeply-held Jewish values concerns caring for the stranger.  The Torah reminds us repeatedly (especially in the Exodus story) that we are to "Love the stranger; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt".  The principle of welcoming the stranger is ultimately repeated 35 times in the Torah -- more than any other commandment.

The Jewish people can be rightfully proud of such eternal values that have guided and sustained us throughout the millennia. And it is praiseworthy that we continue to be strong advocates for those principles which are so near and dear to us. We should love the stranger, pursue justice and care for the poor, as it is these values which have shaped us as a people. Yet even while we agree on the goals, sometimes we will remain divided on how best to achieve them -- but that's all part of the process.  Nobody would suggest, for example, that all our country's borders should be torn down; yet neither do we accept that an innocent refugee should be neglected in their hour of need.

As Jews, we are particularly sensitive to the plight of refugees. We know from painful, historical experience what it is like to flee oppression and to find no welcoming door. This is why we can be proud that the various arms of the Conservative Movement came together to issue a resolution in response to President Trump's executive order barring refugees and immigrants from entering the United States. You can find the text of that resolution here:

In fact, in a rare show of unity, both orthodox and liberal denominations came together to voice their concerns regarding the ban:

We may not always agree on a whole host of issues, or be uncertain about how best to advance those principles which are sacred to us.  Nevertheless, we must work to put away the daggers that threaten to tear us apart, and work to sow the seeds of respect and tolerance among ourselves and among all the peoples of our great country.

May we strive to uphold our cherished Jewish values; moving from divisiveness to healing, from despair to hope, and from fear to faith.  And in doing so let us help build a world that is true to the principle of Tikkun Olam, repairing our fragmented and often polarized world.

Rabbi Mark


Rabbi Mark Zimmerman
Congregation Beth Shalom
Atlanta, Georgia  (770) 399-5300    

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