To Welcome the Stranger


Thoughts shared at Kirchengemeinde, Schulensee, Germany, October 9, 2016

(In Honor of Rabbi (Dr.) Ferenć Raj, who has exemplified these ideals throughout his distinguished career)

We Jews are incredibly proud of our Torah! But we never claim that Torah was history’s first Code of Law. There are several that came before. The Code of Hammurabi was the most famous.

But we do claim that Torah was the first code to grant equal protection under the law to the non-citizen. “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

It may surprise you to know that this idea, so beautifully read for us this morning, does not appear just once in our Torah nor even twice.

The Torah emphasizes this crucial revolution in human thinking no fewer than 36 times. No other commandment appears so frequently.

We find the roots of this commandment in the stories about the man we consider the first Jew, Abraham. Our Torah teaches that God—in an effort to see the world become more just, caring and compassionate—made a Covenant with Abraham and all of us who see ourselves as his descendants.

In the Covenant God promised:

  • To protect Abraham
  • Give him the progeny he desperately craved
  • Make him and his seed a permanent people. (After 4000 years, we are still here. That is permanent, is it not, even by European standards?)
  • (Finally, God promised us that tiny sliver of land in the Middle East that is Israel today.

But a covenant is not just a unilateral promise. It is a binding agreement.

In exchange for these rewards, God charged Abraham and all of us:

  • To be a blessing (Genesis 12:2)
  • To walk in God’s ways and live up to God’s teachings (Genesis 17:1)
  • To fill the world and teach his descendants—again, that is all of us—with ומשפט צדקה (Tzedakah u’mishpat), “righteousness and justice.” (Genesis 18:19)

As the Torah teaches (Genesis 18:1-8) Abraham rushed out into the desert to greet three strangers. He brought them into his tent, helped them wash, and then served them a sumptuous meal.

Our Midrashic tradition expands the lesson of this story. We read that Abraham’s tent had an opening on all four of its sides so that he would see all who approached his tent from any direction. Then he would rush out into the desert to welcome them in the way we read of his welcome this morning.

Another legend tells that once an old man was wandering toward his tent, and Abraham, as was his custom, ran out to greet him. He ushered him into his tent, helped him was and served him a delicious meal in the same manner that he welcomed the three men in this morning’s reading.

After the man finished dining, though, he took an idol out of his sack and began to worship it.

Abraham was furious that the man would profane his tent with such blasphemy.

He screamed at the man in rage, picked him up bodily and through him, his idol and his sack out into the desert.

Then he heard the voice of God

“Abraham, Abraham! I have put up with that man and his idol worship for 75 years! Could you not have tolerated him for even a single night?”

Ashamed, Abraham ran out into the cold desert night, caught up with the man, apologized profusely and implored him to return to his tent.

So, what does this teach us?

Germany has done more than any country to welcome refugees from upheaval in foreign lands, particularly in Syria. She has learned from the horrible period of Nazi rule. Her efforts have been exemplary, but no one can deny that the presence of people who appear different and have different customs makes some people uneasy.

But our biblical mandate is clear!

If we truly consider ourselves descendants of Abraham, we must—even if it is not always convenient—go out of our way to bring them into our tent as they recover from the ravages of war, displacement and great loss.

Yes, if we would honor the example of Abraham, we must welcome those who seek asylum in our midst and, to paraphrase the prophet Micah, settle them under their new vines and fig trees and do our utmost to see that none shall make them afraid. (Micah 4:4)


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