Welcoming the Non-Stranger

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, July 21, 2023 / 3 Av 5783

Summary: This week’s Torah reading reminds us of our responsibility to care for the stranger, yet the Torah also has an iron-clad concern for the person who is not a stranger. How do we balance these competing concerns in our political, social, and individual lives?

Reading Time: Four minutes

The Talmud has a phrase, “anshei imrei…: People say.” It is one of the ways our Sages brought then-contemporary wisdom or folk sayings into their higher-level discussions. Borrowing from their approach, there’s something fascinating about juxtaposing our culture’s paradoxical statements. For example, in our milieu, the older statement, “God is in the details,” morphed more recently into, “the devil is in the details.” Each of these statements opens us up to important truths about the power of the small to have undue influence on outcomes.

A similar set of contradictory statements focuses us on different types of inclusion. We talk about how absence makes the heart grow fonder even as we also note that familiarity breeds contempt. Each of these folk sayings seems to offer a different perspective on a lesson Joni Mitchell crooned about in her famous sixties song, “Big Yellow Taxi.” The refrain in the song reminds us, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.”

We tend to devalue who or what is always around because the very dependability of their presence makes us take them for granted, or even grow tired, because we focus on their downside rather than their upside. Current neurobiology, however, has shown that hindsight tends to be kinder as our memories slough off what was unpleasant, retaining and giving a sheen to the positive elements of the person or incident.

As the book of Deuteronomy opens, the Torah reiterates one of its most common injunctions: “Decide justly between an Israelite and a stranger.” Elsewhere, the Torah reminds us not to oppress the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. We have firsthand historical knowledge of how it feels to be treated as second-class citizens. So much of our focus on tikkun olam and social action is an application of this noble truth.

Yet the opposite is equally true. The Torah, while deeply concerned with protecting the weakest elements of society (the widow, orphan, and immigrant), repeatedly reminds us to favor neither the rich or poor, the powerful or weak. To paraphrase Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote on injustice, inequality anywhere is a risk to equality everywhere, for it changes an absolute value into a relative good that can be horse-traded depending on conditions.

In some circles, it has become acceptable to oppress the citizen and the non-stranger. While there are corollaries in American society one could meditate upon to determine their applicability, I am thinking specifically of Israel and the current governing crisis in which a strange cobbling of minorities is attempting to strip from the majority its right to democracy. The largely secular, democratic majority, who sacrifice the most for the country while generating widespread wealth and opportunity, risks losing its rights, and many of them have made known that in such an instance, they will leave Israel. Many already have, creating economic instability while highlighting that, indeed, we don’t always know what we have till it’s gone.

Equality under the law is complicated stuff, especially when we attempt to rectify past injustices. A careful reading of the Torah reveals its commitment to preserving equality for all, including the non-stranger. The politics of all this generates tremendous disagreement in an era of polarization, such that this may be one of the more difficult Torah teachings to assimilate into our diverse, individual worldviews. When we apply this moral emphasis to our personal relationships, however, it’s easy to see its validity and the teaching becomes less fraught.

There is unlikely to be a person alive who has not at moments been forgotten, neglected, or unseen by their loved ones. It is equally doubtful that there is a person alive who has also not forgotten or neglected a loved one. It’s almost unavoidable, even as we all know that this sort of neglect, whether or not it is benign in intentions, produces some of the worst sorts of pain.

Ostracism is the social practice of exclusion; when it occurs on the individual level and goes unaddressed, it can cause marriages to fail, parents and children to become estranged, and friendships to dissolve. It is not the moments of forgetting that matter, but what happens afterwards; I will be addressing this issue in one of my High Holiday sermons.

Before that, though, we can all remind ourselves that when we welcome the non-stranger, we also help to welcome the stranger, and vice versa. We are all connected in a vast web of relationships. I am reminded of a spiritual technique practiced by Rabbi Simcha Bunim. In one pocket, he had a note that reminded him the world was created just for him, and in the other pocket, a different note declared that he was nothing but dust and ashes. By maintaining awareness of these two truths, he simultaneously developed his capacities for self-agency and humility.

What would we learn if we carried a two-sided note upon which was written, “Welcome the stranger. Welcome the non-stranger”?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rav D

Shabbat Table Talk

    1. Can you remember an early childhood incident of being excluded? How did this experience impact you?
    2. Among those rare occasions when you excluded someone, which incident has left you with strong regret? What have you learned from this?

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