The following was delivered first as a sermon this past Shabbat, June 14, 2013.
Once, when living in Israel, I attended a lecture given by an American-born scholar who had made aliyah 30 years prior. He was in the middle of this amazing lecture, and we were hanging on every word, when suddenly he came up short. I do not remember what he was lecturing about, but as he was giving his talk in English, it was clear that he couldn’t come up with the word he was looking for. He thought for a minute, and asked in clear Hebrew, “How do you say…” and we all shouted out the English word he wanted. The scholar began to laugh and he said, “You see, you can live in Israel for 30 years, and your English never is what it was, and your Hebrew is never quite good enough.”
Put another way, this man was living an immigrant’s experience. Even as embedded in the Israeli culture as he was, he was still a step outside, he was still that stranger in a strange land, that ger b’tokham, that foreigner who dwells among them.
Ger anokhi ba-aretz, I am a stranger in the land (Psalm 119:19), the Psalmist states. This is an essential notion of Jewishness. Strangeness is an essential quality of our being Jewish. We are strange as we are set apart as a kehilah k’doshah, as a holy community. The Jewish people bear this mark of holiness, and by definition that sets us apart. The root of holiness brings us to the word hekdesh, to distinguish and designate. And perhaps it is this confluence of holiness and separate designation that defines us as strangers wandering through a strange land.
We wonder, why was it our destiny as the People of Israel to wander in the wilderness? Why are we as Jews made to feel separate, apart, different from others? Like one of the last single friends at a wedding, or like someone carrying scars on the inside that do not show to passersby on the outside, we end up back at an essential question: Why am I here on my own when everyone else seems to be settled in their place? This strangeness is uncomfortable, and yet, it is holy, as well.
It is a holy strangeness, because that wandering leads to the promised land. Out of the tension that exists in the wilderness, we learn and we develop, picking up the lessons and meaning that it offers. Yet, we cannot discount that the tension and the learning from a strange wilderness wandering is uncomfortable. Why have you brought us here, our Israelite forebears cry out to Moses and Aaron. Without water, without food, rambling along, the Israelites can only look back to the place from which they came, We would be better back in Egypt! Living in the narrows of bondage! At least there would be food, drink, a place to lay our heads. We would have some sense of surety.
Certainly Moses and Aaron would have loved some of that confidence their followers sought as well. Miriam, their sister, has just died, and the wells dry up. The people cry out in thirst, robbing Moses and Aaron of their cries of grief over their sister’s death.
Talk to the rock, God commands, and it will give water. But weak-of-tongue Moses could not talk; in his grief, he could only strike out. He struck the rock, and still water came forth, but God’s trust in him had been fractured. To be in a wilderness period of our lives, we may not be the best versions of ourselves. We are, after all, living in a moment of tension and separateness. Still, wilderness wanderings, strangeness in strange lands, lead to promised places. To be in that liminal space is, in fact, holy. After all, “You know the the very being of the stranger, as you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9). We are all somewhere between two languages, somewhere wandering between two lands, wanderers of our own sort, which opens us up to empathetic possibilities when we encounter others along that way.
I have a distinct memory of my first experience in which I learned the power of empathy. It was Yom Kippur. I must have been in middle school or early high school. Growing up in Houston, my congregation on Yom Kippur afternoon held what they called symposium. This was an afternoon program in which four congregants were invited to share their lives’ stories, especially around the topic of how the Jewish tradition had influenced their lives. It was an honor to be asked to give your story at symposium, and often it would draw a crowd equal to Kol Nidrei. The stories our friends and neighbors shared were powerful. Often, getting to tell their stories was a cathartic process for them, and it was an opportunity for those listening to see similarities reflected back. Symposium was the first time I saw my father cry.
This one year that I am remembering in particular, one of the speakers was Mrs. Klein. Mrs. Klein had been a teacher in my elementary school. She was the mean teacher; she was the difficult teacher; no student looked forward to having her. So, as a child growing up in that community, when I saw that Mrs. Klein was speaking at symposium, I doubted what she might have to offer our community. As she began to speak, I listened with curiosity. She spoke about her upbringing in a difficult family, losing her father at a young age, being raised by her mother alone, not having much money or access to nicer things, and feeling shame about being poor and Jewish, when it seemed an expectation that Jews be a success.
And then, she paused. She dug down deep, and segued into another part of her story. When Mrs. Klein was 11 years old her mother remarried. The two of them moved into her stepfather’s home. Shortly after that move, the physical abuse and sexual assault began. She was regularly victimized until she was 16, when she finally ran away from home. It took great strength for her to survive that home, even greater strength to survive after running away, and in her adult years, she struggled to overcome her isolation as a victim, she had embraced her status as other, her her status as a stranger among her community, she was someone who was wandering with scars that she could not show. Finally, she found comfort in confidence with her rabbi, and he directed her toward a support group. It was there that healing began. She came out of her shell more. She realized that her experience was not hers alone. She looked at the faces sitting around her in support group meetings, and she could say together with them, “You know the the very being of the stranger, as you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” By invoking the very identity of strangeness, Mrs. Klein came to understand that she was included in a kehilah k’doshah. She encountered the other there, and discovered a new reality for her own life. By walking through that wilderness, and finding empathetic companions along the way, and by discovering the strength to take her private pain public, Mrs. Klein also encountered the healing embrace of community.
After this symposium, I reflected back to my mother, “Who knew?”
She replied, “You see, you never really know a person. You never really know what’s going on under the surface. That is why we should not be so quick to judgement.”
We all carry our stories with us. For some we love to share those stories and to receive them as well. And some remain private, secret, tucked away. Truly sometimes it can be painful and fearful to talk about some of those things. But in this congregational family, in our Jewish community, none of us have to be alone.
In a former congregation as a rabbinic intern, I was tasked to start up a listening campaign, similar to the house meetings and one-on-one conversations that Temple Shalom has done as part of Ani v’Atah over the years. I was asked to build a team of leaders who would go out and have coffee with thirty other congregants each, to talk, to hear and share stories, to understand each other’s motivations, passions, fears, and hopes. We ran a number of trainings to get the leaders ready. We divvied up the congregational mailing list, and the leaders began to make their invites. A few weeks later we had a follow up meeting. Of the 300 conversations or so that were supposed to take place, each leader had only been able to get one or two people to agree to sit down with them. We tried to understand why there was resistance within the congregation. One person at the table had the answer. She told about one invite she had made over the phone to which the other person had said, “Why would I sit down with you? You’re a total stranger.”
We had assumed that because of the shared connection through the synagogue, people would be willing to make time for one another. This wasn’t true. These individuals within the congregation were far from neighbors, even though they all lived blocks from one another. They were strangers to one another, and they were each on individual journeys. Evidently, good fences made great neighbors. At that point we saw the campaign we needed to run. We called it From Stranger to Neighbor, and its mission was apparent: We are all wanderers, and the joy of Jewish life is that we can travel together. Isolated and busy we may be, but if we care to, if we have a curiosity in others, if we seek companionship, then we as Jews can break down walls and offer partnership and connection to one another. After all, what is the central theme of Torah if it is not to love your neighbor as you, yourself are loved?
The core message of the Book of Numbers is one of holy strangeness in community. As we are each somewhere between two languages, somewhere between two lands, it is possible to find sanctity in the comfort of friends and family who surround us and who help to bring us closer to that promised land.