We all start as strangers
Friday, 10 November 2017 | 21 Heshvan, 5778
From the beginning of time we have all been strangers. The very first encounter between human beings was one between two strangers: Adam meeting Eve. We all know what it is to be the other, an outsider. It’s part of the universal human experience; it’s something we’ve all felt, and it’s not necessarily negative; most of our friends and partners were probably strangers at first.
As Jews we have felt the loneliness and estrangement more acutely than most. Like Adam we have been forced into exile, like Abraham we have been called into exile; to wander from place to place. Exile usually made us into pariahs, strangers in a strange land; hated, pilloried, feared and suspected. The Church pejoratively called us ‘Wandering Jews’ and we’ve even got an ugly, creeping plant named after us! But our global wandering also made us into fearless traders, spreaders of knowledge and ethics, the world’s first interconnected web community. Even today when you travel to a distant Jewish community you’re likely to quickly find friends and connections and play the game of ‘mishpachology’.
The two seminal journeys of Jewish history are about venturing into strange lands: Abraham’s sojourn from Ur, the people of Israel’s journey from Egypt. Abraham is, in fact, the first Biblical character to call himself a stranger when, in this week’s parasha, he declares to the Hittites: “I am an alien ( גר) and resident among you” (Gen 23:3). He is also described as an עברי a Hebrew which can be translated as the other, the foreigner, the one who comes from the other side. Abraham’s self-description elegantly captures the tension between alienation and assimilation and it still defines Jewish identity. Despite the tension Abraham is best-known for his ,חסד his compassion, which is expressed in his hospitality and ‘outreachness’. He and Sarah define the kindness of and to strangers in their capacity to reach out to the tired and hungry travellers who find their way to their remote desert dwelling. Rebecca becomes part of the Abrahamic family, wife to Isaac, precisely because of her same ability to connect to strangers. Her generosity to the visitor Eliezer and his thirsty animals is awesome and the stuff of legends and takes up the bulk of this week’s parasha (see Ibid 24).
If Abraham and Sarah define the sensitivity of strangers, the people of Sodom represent the abuse of strangers. In rabbinic literature מדת סדום the quintessence of Sodom is its ugly hostility towards visitors. They discourage tourists and are fearsome towards aliens. They seek to distance and vilify those seeking hospitality and refuge – witness their treatment of Lot’s guests and the way they turn on Lot himself. Abraham’s greatness is reflected in his defence of these unworthy Sodomite, strangers to his own cause and principles…
It’s hard to read the story of Abraham and not see its implications for us. How well do we do on the ‘stranger-test’, how kind are we to the newcomers to our shules and schools, to our workplaces and social parties? How thoughtful are we towards the homeless and helpless on our Melbourne Streets? How well are we doing as an Australian Society towards the migrants in our midst; to the outsiders we have confined to island detention centres; to the ‘insiders’ our original inhabitants that we have failed to really comes to terms with?
There are far too many refugees living in Australia that are not given the full benefits of our society. And the unfolding events at Manus Island during this past week speak of our failure to adequately respond to the pain and fear of the stranger. Politics aside, refusing food and water while a solution is sought, strikes me as shameful. The Halacha tells us that we don’t question a person asking for food, we first give it and then ask questions about the authenticity of their other needs.
We may not be able to live up to the standards of Abraham and Sarah, to open our doors on all sides and take in the weary and the wounded; we may be unable to reach out as they do to unworthy strangers (as in Sodom); we may lack their courage and compassion but as the children of Abraham we can surely do better. Let’s rather err on the side of caring than be judged a callous bystanders to the strangers in our midst, the aliens at our gates…