Smile at a stranger and you just may change a life
Our history is predicated on our being strangers, always in search of the place where we would find safety. Knowing our history, could anyone deny us the emotions that come from being outsiders? However, rather than define us as suspicious and defensive, God demands that our experience as outcasts give us empathy. “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” (Vayikra 19:34) The ability to love the stranger is not only a moral imperative but, as we have learned so tragically in recent days and years, it can very well be the difference between life and death.
Rabbi Benjamin Blech, in his Aish.com article, “The Mass Shootings-Tisha B’Av”, speaks to the violence that has become an almost predictable consequence of society’s failure to embrace the stranger. “The bloodbaths of mass murder are rooted in a veritable plague of hatred – hatred of other views, hatred of people who differ with us in any discernible way…”
That the culture “hates” the stranger serves only to make the stranger more isolated. It is hurtful and dangerous to the stranger. It is also powerfully dangerous to the society and culture when, as we have seen happen so often, the stranger lashes out in reaction to his isolation.
Still, many people are gerim. What is it that transforms someone from a stranger into a creature capable of committing mass violence? According to the LA Times, there are four elements that people who commit mass violence have in common. The first is that they very often experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age, which caused alienation early in life. Second, most people who commit mass violence become fixated on the actions of others; that is, they seek to identify with someone and the one they identify with is one who shares his isolation and pain. Third, nearly every person who commits mass violence had a specific, identifiable crisis point in the days, weeks and months prior. A job loss. A relationship rejection. Something that proved to be the “breaking point” in his isolation.
And finally, those who carried out acts of mass violence had the means to do so. We must note that in almost every instance of mass gun violence, the shooter obtained his guns legally. So, not only do we fail to embrace the stranger, we essentially hand him the weapons he will use against us!
Yet, for all the acts of mass violence which necessarily capture our attention – from Uvalde to Virginia Tech, across the country and across the years – there are thousands upon thousands who fit this ger criteria who do not commit violence.
What differentiates the shooter from the non-shooter? From a Jewish perspective, what drives the actual shooters is that they desperately wanted to be seen. They felt estranged and were desperate for it to no longer be so.
They could no longer endure the pain of being estranged strangers - gerim.
If the thing that drove them to such acts of hatred and violence was being a ger then the cure for that hatred can only be found in God’s command, “You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself…”
We would be wise to remember that loving a ger is a mitzvah no less required than observing Shabbat, eating kosher, or giving charity. It is, and must be, essential to our psyche and our behavior. Why? Because we too were strangers. We know the feeling of alienation and vulnerability. Every day we must remember our “otherness”, we must remember God who took us out of Mitzrayim. God, who reveals Himself to us at Sinai with the words, I the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt.
Parshat Ekev challenges us anew with this compelling – and counter-intuitive – obligation. “You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19) Appearing thirty-six times (double chai!) in Torah, we hear it and read it so often and refer to it so regularly that we too often lose sight of its power and unsettling demand.
We do so at our peril and diminishment.
Much too often, we carefully adapt the demands of this mitzvah to fit our comfort rather than rise to the profound – and gracious – imposition that it places upon us. We suggest the mitzvah refers to those exactly like us but who, perhaps, live in another city or town; fellow Jews (and likely Jews of the same level of observance!) In responding to the mitzvah in this way, we show how badly we misread it. God has not commanded us to care for the stranger for our comfort but for His! Hear this command with fresh ears, with the ears of our ancestors, with the ears of a people and a world for whom communal identity was fundamental to self and existence. This command tells us to go against everything that our human instincts and fears demand. It tells us to see beyond the familiar and the safe and to see the shared fundamental goodness and holiness that God bestows upon all His creatures.
We are told to care for the stranger but to do so we must ask, who is the ger? I posed this question to my son, Nathan. His response spoke to the deep wisdom in God’s command. “I think anyone in any social situation can feel like a ger. The new kid in class. The new guy at the office. In fact, in any social situation there is likely to be someone that feels like a ger—doesn’t have to be a new situation, it’s just the inevitability of a social dynamics.”
A ger is not just defined by physical realities; not defined by where he’s from or the color of his skin. He is one whose place in life makes him feel like a ger!
This understanding demands we bring a greater sensitivity to every aspect of our lives, encouraging us to look for the ger in every situation and respond supportively; it encourages us to see in the eyes of the estranged divorced men and women who have lost their home, Shabbos table, dignity, and confidence, that stranger that we were once in the land of Egypt! It encourages us to see the humanity and beauty in those teens who have become estranged from their homes, yeshivas, shuls, and communities. Gerim.
It might seem to us that there are ever greater numbers of these struggling, separated individuals and perhaps there are. We are a society that finds it very hard to love altogether. So how much more difficult is it for us to reach out and care for the stranger? Yet we must.
We were gerim in the land of Egypt. Now they are gerim in their own mitzrayim (narrow, tight place). They are boxed in. Lost. And God commands that we treat them with respect, loving kindness, decency. God commands that we treat them in a way that makes clear that redemption is just ahead.
While it may seem “only human” to fear the stranger and the unknown, it is, in fact, because we are “only” human that God commands us to be more, to rise above our limitations, to remember our own pain and fear so that we can respond to the pain and fear of others.
When we don’t… we see the results of when we allow our rhetoric and our emotions to express the limitations of our human natures. We see it in the horrible images of school shootings; images of fortunate parents gripping their surviving children tightly, unable to protect them from the wounds they will carry forever; we see it in the images of the grieving parents who are not so fortunate…
Fear. Hate. Loathing.
Of the other.
According to some – civic leaders, religious leaders, educated men and women – strangers are criminals, rapists, gang members. They are less than human. But we know that they are but God’s creatures currently in the galut in search of their coming redemption.
God does not accept our fear, our incendiary words, our hateful speech and behavior. Perhaps when we stood at Sinai, we tried to forget the shame of being gerim. God demands that we remember, not for ourselves but for those others who still suffer the demeaning emotions even as we bask in the light of grace.
Who is the ger?
We all are.
Who is in galut?
We all are.
Who stands at Sinai?
We all do.