I want to take this morning’s sermon in two very different directions. Both speak to our High Holiday theme, and both fit under the rubric of our fourth, and final quote about love, but I think you will agree that these are two disparate interpretations. They intersect, however, at you and me. This is, by the way, true of all four of my sermons these High Holidays. The link between everything I have said, and among all of our experiences across these services and Holy Days, is the effect it can and should have on our behavior. This morning I want to ask what it means “to love the stranger.” But I don’t only ask it generally, as a theoretical question about the world. I invite you to think about what “love the stranger” means to you, in your life, and what it can mean for you in the year ahead.
As you probably know by now, if you’ve heard any of my Divrei Torah, my speeches, this holiday season, I chose my theme for this year back in June. I was visiting a Jewish community in London, where I had lived over a decade earlier, and I was praying in their new sanctuary for the very first time. Above the ark in the New North London Synagogue I saw three quotes inscribed on the walls, each dealing with love in the Torah, and each now forming the basis of a sermon at our High Holidays here in Wallingford. For this, my final talk, I want to look at one of those verses; a powerful statement from Deuteronomy, 10:19,
“v’Ahavtem Et Ha-Ger,” “and you shall love the stranger.” The Torah knows that this goes against our natural inclination. We are more comfortable with people who look, sound, and act like us, because that is what we, human beings, are programmed to do. I feel I need to emphasize that the Torah does not command behaviors that are obvious. You won’t find in our Bible: “thou shalt breathe in and out every day” or “take heed, and eat when thou art hungry.” Our mitzvot focus on challenging us to be better people, to improve our own lives and the lives of others around us. Hence the commandment to “love the stranger.”
Again, I chose this theme back in June, yet here we are, in September, and a major public debate swirls around Syrian refugees, and whether we can allow them to come to the US or not. We see countries like Denmark, France, England, and yes, Sweden, turning people away, and even going so far as to put up billboards in Lebanon discouraging emigration to Europe. It is tempting to agree with these countries, and fear waves of immigration. But as Jews, we cannot. A colleague of mine, Rabbi Rachel Barenblat - who blogs under the wonderful name “The Velveteen Rabbi” - writes: “Jewish history is filled with exile and wanderings. Our community retains the memory of being marginalized and mistreated. When economic times were tough, time and again, we have been the victims of attacks, of prejudice, of pogroms.” Rabbi Barenblat reminds us that the mitzvah in Deuteronomy SPECIFICALLY says that we must “love the stranger…” BECAUSE we were strangers in Egypt. And our history reminds us we were strangers EVERYWHERE, and we know what that was like. We need to use our voices to stand up for refugees and exiles today, in 2015, because their story was ours, and not even so very long ago. We know how to be vigilant on behalf of our own community, to stand up against hateful speech like Ann Coulter’s, but can we also feel the pain of Syrian refugees, and speak out for them as well?
The famous Chasidic master, Reb Nachman of Bratslav, challenged us in this regard as well, stating: “You have to judge every person generously. Even if you have reason to think that person is completely wicked, it is your job to look hard and seek out some bit of goodness, someplace in that person where he is not evil. When you find that bit of goodness, and judge that person that way, you really may raise her up to goodness. Treating people this way allows them to be restored, to come to teshuvah, repentance.” I am certain that we could come up with a LONG list of reasons why NOT to accept refugees. I know that EVERY country could make such a list, and many probably do. But that is not our job. Our job is to “love the stranger”; to push ourselves to see the good in another, even when we have many reasons NOT to do so. Reb Nachman specifically reminds us that when we think the best of people, they may even surprise us and rise to the challenge; exceeding our expectations, and leading us all to greater teshuvah, repentance, on these High Holidays.
I began my sermon this morning by telling you that this topic, and really all my topics, are about YOU. “Loving the stranger” could appear to be the exception. You might think it’s about the stranger, about that other person, or group of people, but it is actually very much about you, about all of us. Loving the stranger makes us better people; it makes us feel greater pride in ourselves, our community, and our religion. Rabbi Francine Klagsbrun, in a monumental work entitled “Voices of Wisdom,” writes about our rabbinic ancestors. She informs us that they held a firm “conviction that the Torah was God’s instrument for spreading ethical teachings to ALL people. Through exemplary behavior toward non-Jews, they felt they enhanced the Torah and God’s name in the eyes of the world.”
When we read articles about the latest crises across the globe, when we consider which campaigns to support online, such as moveon.org or the American Jewish World Service, or think about contacting our legislators, I encourage all of us to not just think about Jewish causes or issues that affect the Jewish community. Remember that “love the stranger” is ALSO a central commandment for Jews, and one that has inspired our ancestors and our leaders for generations. We cannot limit our expressions of love; we must instead realize that our obligation, our duty, extends to all people everywhere, and showing our concern for them, as well as our own brethren, is central to what it means to be a Jew.
Let me pivot now to my second interpretation of our essential verse. Part of this mitzvah, this commandment, is about making space for another. We cannot love the stranger at a great distance, he or she needs to be close to our hearts and close to our physical space. Rabbi Isaac Luria, one of the founders of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism in the 16th Century, talks about how God created the world with Ahavah, with love. And when God created the world, God had to remove God’s Self from covering all of existence. The Divine Spirit, you see, was everywhere and everything, but God pulled back slightly to create a small pocket, like a bubble of air in a bottle of water, wherein humanity and the world could exist. This is called tzimtzum, God’s contraction. And an Israeli psychologist, Mordechai Rotenberg, took Luria’s Kabbalistic concept of Divine tzimtzum, and applied it to human behavior. We each need to learn to contract OUR selves to create the potential for another to expand. “Tzimtzum makes room for others,” writes Rotenberg,” thereby giving a person and others space to co-exist.” This is a difficult thing for all of us to do; remove ourselves, pull back, and allow for another to step into that space. It may sound simple, but it is not. Just as we discussed on Rosh Hashanah, these concepts are actually much harder to live by.
The truth is, we do not like to share space. Right now, here in our little community of Ohev Shalom, we are engaged in a dialogue about contracting AND expanding; a form of congregational tzimtzum. Led by our interfaith community chairperson, Josh Cohen, our synagogue president, Bonnie Breit, and myself, we have been discussing the role of interfaith families in our community, and whether non-Jewish family members can be fully accepted and integrated into our congregation. It has truly been a wonderful communal conversation, and one which I have personally valued greatly. I want to publicly thank everyone who has voiced an opinion in this discussion.
There is disagreement. Some people have expressed concerns. For instance, how are we still a JEWISH community, if we make this change? Will we still be a Conservative synagogue? Won’t we just become a community center, and no longer a religious organization? To me, this issue is a question of love and making space. It might have surprised you that I brought up the question of interfaith under the subject of “love the stranger” rather than, say, “love your neighbor as yourself,” but I did this very deliberately. We sometimes treat interfaith families as if they are, indeed, strangers. Over the course of our community conversation, several individuals shared very powerful stories of feeling excluded. For instance, I heard, for the first time, that some non-Jews move away from the aisles when the Torah is processed around; concerned that it would be inappropriate to touch or kiss it, or that the Jews in the room might be offended, or at the very least uncomfortable, if a non-Jew approached their holy scroll. This made me very sad.
As the rabbis of the Talmud clearly stated, the Torah is God’s instrument for spreading ethical teachings to ALL people. Anyone can touch it, and everyone should feel welcome to connect to it and to its wisdom, metaphorically AND physically.
This is still, and always will be, a Jewish synagogue, and a Conservative Movement congregation. That is a core value for me, for leadership, and for all who have engaged in this dialogue. At Ohev Shalom, Jews bless the Torah, Jews carry the Torah and dance with it when we celebrate receiving this Instruction on the holiday of Simchat Torah, in just a couple of weeks. But non-Jews ARE a part of our community; they are not “the stranger.” As one person in our congregation wrote to me in a beautiful letter earlier this year, “Interfaith is not good or bad, it simply IS.” We must open our eyes to the make-up of our community, to live with honesty and integrity about who we are, who we already are. And we should celebrate it. This is a strong place. We should take great pride in what we have built here, together, and feel great joy that, in this day and age, we are able to include all those who join us in making Ohev the wonderful place it is. For now, this DOES still fall under the rubric of “Love the stranger,” but I hope that a constitutional change in the months ahead will enjoin us all to change the way we think, the way we act, and the way we include people in this, our shared community.
As I conclude this talk, and hence also conclude my series on “Ahavah,” on love in our Jewish tradition, I want to return, one final time, to my original intent. Love is about relationships - with God, with our neighbors, with our values of Truth and Peace, and with the strangers around us. At the core of it all is the hope that you will look inside and think about ways to challenge, change, and improve yourself. Bringing more love into our outlook can influence all these powerful relationships, and create for each of us greater harmony and peace. Rabbi Barenblat - the Velveteen Rabbi - writes on her blog about the power of this kind of shift in outlook: “Imagine if everyone who looked at me saw in me the very best things I have done. Imagine if, looking at me, what you saw was me at my most compassionate, my most kind, my most caring. You wouldn’t be able to impute ill will to me, because you would see my best self… and as a result, my best self would continue to manifest.”
Not only would we become better people if we could see the best in one another. We might draw out EVEN greater behaviors in one another, and together we would all rise to the greatest versions of ourselves. Having others believe in us and see us as we are at our best can be incredibly empowering, and even life-altering. “Ahavah.” It is not simple. It is not easy. But it is - as its Aramaic root, “y’hav,” reminds us - a “gift,” an invaluable present that we can give one another and ourselves.
I believe that Ahavah, love, can and should be at the core of everything we do. That it should essentially be the kind of thing we would want to emblazon on our walls, and do so with all our hearts, souls, and might. In this new year, let us resolve to bring more “Ahavah” into our lives, individually and collectively, filled with Peace AND Truth, along with all members of our community, fused together with one purpose.
One of our greatest Jewish sages, Maimonides, the Rambam, wrote in a letter a thousand years ago that the Torah “bids us to love with the whole force of our heart’s affection.” This is our task in the year ahead. May we take it on wholeheartedly, and may we thereby each write ourselves into the Book of Life for a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year.