And Jacob went forth. Yayztei. That’s the same verb root as Hamotzi, who brings forth bread from the earth, or yatza, to go forth, exit, from which we get the phrase for the Exodus from Egyp, yitziat mitzrayim.
Now Jacob was a dreamer. He had a rock for a pillow. I don’t know about you, in all those years of Girl Scout camping, I always wound up with a rock for a pillow. Usually that meant that I didn’t sleep, let alone dream. Never would make it to REM sleep on those camping trips!
Let’s look at this dream. It was a ladder, reaching up to the sky, the heavens
A ladder with malachim, angels, messengers, going up and down.
When he wakes up he says, “God was in this place. And I did not know it.” And he calls that place, that Makom, Beit El, House of G-d.” Makom, Place becomes another name for G-d. And we learn from this what psychology has taught more recently that there is a deep connection between dreams and spirituality.
What about that dream of a ladder? I think it is about how we want to live, in a place with G-d. In a place with hope. In a place that is just and fair. Those messengers are going up and down. They are bi-directional. They remind me of the verse from Deuteronomy 30: “For this commandment which I command you today, it is not too hard for you. Neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you shall say, ‘Who shall go up for us towards the heavens and bring it to us and make us hear it so that we will do it. Nor is it across the sea so that you would say, ‘Who shall across the sea for us and bring it to us and make us hear it so that we will do it?’
Maimonides uses the metaphor of a ladder to describe higher and higher levels of giving tzedakah. We know this text, but it bears repeating in this context, of a dream of a society where everyone has enough, because it is the right thing, the just thing, the tzedek thing to do.
Rung 1: If one gives unwillingly.
Rung 2: If one gives inadequately but one gives gladly and with a smile.
Rung 3: Climbing higher. If one gives to the poor after being asked.
Rung 4: Halfway there. One gives to the poor directly into their hands and before being asked.
Rung 5: One does not know to whom you give and the poor do not know who gives to them. The sages used to tie coins into their robes and then throw the coins behind their backs so they would not see who collected the tzedakah and the poor would not be ashamed. When we write our end of the year checks, or perhaps you participated in Giving Tuesday, most of us are probably at this rung of the ladder.
Rung 6: Higher still. One knows to whom one gives but the recipient doesn’t know who gave. That’s like the coat someone gave to me to give to certain congregant whose coat is a little threadbare. The sages used to put coins in the doors of the poor in secret.
Rung 7: One gives to the poor without knowing to whom one gives and without the recipient knowing who gave. This is, as Rambam said, a mitzvah solely for the sake of heaven. You get no reward for this. Anonymous giving is one of the hallmarks of Judaism. In the Temple in Jerusalem there was an anonymous fund to distribute food from the offerings to the poorest among us. The Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, in part, fills a similar function in many congregations including this one.
Rung 8: The highest level is to help someone become self-sufficient. It could be a gift or a loan, entering into a partnership with them or finding employment. That way the person will no longer be dependent on others. This is the old, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”
That last rung of this ladder is important. Particularly today. Particularly when too many people don’t want to mentor others, or lend a helping hand, or reach back down the ladder. But that is precisely what Judaism teaches. Over and over and over again.
Today is Human Rights Shabbat. As we have done every year I have been here, we are joining with 70 Jewish congregations to mark this occasion. One year we explored Fair Trade Coffee and Chocolate. I think we would agree that was a yummy year. And I am proud that we now only serve Fair Trade Coffee here at CKI.
One year we talked about the Immokalee Tomato Workers in Florida and why they are demanding a penny a pound more for tomatoes they pick. I now include a tomato on my seder plate every year. One year we added special prayers for the dignity of all. Last year we compared the Human Rights Declaration with verses from the Talmud.
My first question this morning, then, is what is a right? In the US, we talk about the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Bill of Rights. The right to freedom of religion. Freedom of the press. Freedom to assemble. Freedom to bear arms. We talk about civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights. In other countries, there might be other rights, like the guarantee of health care.
Judaism has much to say about rights. And with rights come responsibilities. Today I just want to talk about one area.
36 times in Torah it says we should take care of the widow, the orphan and the stranger. It is a dream of the way the world should be. It is a vision of the world yet to be. And so it is appropriate for this portion with the dream of the messengers ascending and descending the ladder. I believe that this is the message that they were trying to bring to Jacob. And it is something that Jacob did not achieve and something the world has still not achieved. It remains a vision, a dream.
I use this phrase a lot. 36 times in the Torah it says to welcome the widow, the orphan, the stranger. The most marginalized among us, as I usually add. You have all heard me say it. It is about their rights. These are fundamental rights to food and housing. But this year I was brought up short. When I used this line at the State House in my invocation, one of our state representatives asked if I had the list of the 36 places, because then he would use it too.
I have not found the list. Apparently no one has the exact formulation. But with help from Rabbi Lev Meirowitz Nelson and Lord Rabbi Sacks I found the original reference. It appears in the Talmud:
It has been taught: R. Eliezer the Great said: Why did the Torah warn against the wronging of a stranger in thirty-six or as others say, in forty-six places? Because he has a strong inclination to evil. (Bava Metzia 59b)
This is Judaism. So there you have it. Either 36 times or 46 places. Already we have an argument. But it is a 2000 year old argument! I love the idea that it appears 36 times. Our tradition tells us that number represents double chai, double life, 2×18. What is not clear from the grammar is who has the strong inclination to evil. The stranger, convert, proselyte who may “relapse” as some commentators said. Or perhaps the Israelites who have a strong inclination to mistreat the stranger and so it needs to be repeated over and over again.
So I figured it was time to document it. Could I find all the references that Rabbi Eliezer said are there?
Why? What really interests me is the repetition. We know there are no extra words in the Torah. We know that the prohibition against pork only appears twice. Why does the Bible repeat this so many times? It must be really important. Precisely because it is so difficult to do and it seems to go against our natural inclination.
What is a ger? It means a sojourner, an alien, a stranger. It has come to mean convert, someone who has chosen Judaism. Frequently it appears as “ger toshav”, a resident alien, someone who has chosen to live amongst us.
A concordance is a useful Biblical tool to track down Biblical references. The gold standard is Strong’s Concordance, in which he identifies 92 occurrences of “ger” and its derivatives. Not all of those are about treating the ger fairly. Some are just occurances of the word, not commandments.
Brown Driver Briggs Hebrew English Lexicon, another critical tool in Biblical scholarship, seems to come to the same conclusions as Strong.
We get some early hints at why welcoming the stranger is so important. Abraham was a ger toshav. That’s what he calls himself when he buys a cave to bury Sarah. And the elders of the community treat him kindly when they sell him the choicest of burial caves. He and Sarah were known for their hospitality. They rushed to welcome the three visitors to their tent which was open on all four sides so they could see guests approaching from any direction. Gershom, Moses’s son, as his very name implies was a ger. The Haggadah reminds us that our ancestors were wandering Arameans.
The reason is often given that we have to take care of the stranger is precisely because we were once strangers in Egypt.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan.” Exodus 22:20
So that’s the reason for this. We know what it is like to be the stranger. To be the other. And it is not easy. That is why we are told over and over again to treat the stranger with respect. To welcome the stranger. To love the stranger. Why there needs to be one law that applies to citizen and stranger alike.
“You shall have the same law for the stranger as for the native-born.” I just studied that this week with a Bat Mitzvah student whose portion says that a ger can celebrate Passover but must have the same rules for how to do it. Interesting portion for a kid in an interfaith family.
And since there is one law for citizen and stranger alike, refugees are entitled to sanctuary cities, places they can flee to safely, even if they have committed a crime as heinous as murder. Something to think about deeply as the call for sanctuary cities in this country grows.
In the very center of the Torah, in the 19th chapter of Leviticus, we learn that we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Love. It is hard to command an emotion. Impossible some say. So the Torah gives us really practical ways to show our love to our neighbors and even to the strangers.
They must be included in the “positive welfare provisions of Israelite society.” For example, we cannot glean to the corners of our field or pick up the fallen fruit. We must leave them for the widow and the stranger. We see this in action in the Book of Ruth when Ruth, the stranger, goes to glean in Boaz’s field. This commandment is also repeated in Deuteronomy.
These laws commanding us to take care of the stranger is the basis for Hillel’s version of the Golden Rule. “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. Love your neighbor as yourself. The rest is commentary. Go and study.” So study we do.
For example, there is another argument in the Talmud about how this love should be shown. Lord Rabbi Sacks explains it this way:
“Just as there is overreaching in buying and selling, so there is wrong done by words . . . If a person was a son of proselytes, one must not taunt him by saying, “Remember the deeds of your ancestors,” because it is written “Do not ill-treat a stranger or oppress him.” Rabbi Johanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai: verbal wrongdoing is worse than monetary wrongdoing, because of the first it is written “And you shall fear your God” but not of the second. Rabbi Eleazar said: one affects the person, the other only his money. Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said: for one restoration is possible, but not for the other.”
According to Sacks “Oppression,” they concluded, meant monetary wrongdoing, taking financial advantage by robbery or overcharging. “Ill-treatment” referred to verbal abuse – reminding the stranger of his or her origins. This may be the reason we are told that once someone converts to Judaism, we are not allowed to remind them that he or she is a convert.
Sacks to asks the question why welcoming the stranger is so important, “Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.” (emphasis mine)
That’s it. We are commanded to love the stranger because we are all created b’tzelim elohim, in the image of G-d. G-d is the stranger. The stranger is us. The stranger is G-d who is each of us. It is a dance.
All of us are entitled to be loved. To feel G-d’s love. This is the answer to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This is why we are commanded to “Love the Lord your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.” With all your everything. And this is what G-d requires of us, “To do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with G-d.”
It is simple, no? Apparently not so much or G-d wouldn’t have to repeat it so many times in so many different ways.
I set out to develop a list of all the 36 references, commandments to welcome and love the stranger. It seemed particularly important at this time to do this deep Torah text study. I did not come away with a list of 46 or even 36 references. Perhaps the Talmud was speaking in hyperbole or metaphor. Since we don’t have their exact list, it is hard to know what specifically they were counting. If you count the references in the whole TaNaCH then I am closer.
I am not sure ultimately that was the point. Clearly this was of critical importance both in the Torah and to the rabbis. It is the central teaching of Judaism. There is no way around that. Nothing else has been given as much weight. It is what makes me proud to be a Jew and it reminds me of Edmund Flegg’s quote.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel demands of me no abdication of the mind.
I am a Jew because the faith of Israel requires of my all the devotion of my heart.
I am a Jew because in every place where suffering weeps, the Jew weeps.
I am a Jew because the word of Israel is the oldest and the newest.
I am a Jew because the promise of Israel is the universal promise.
I am a Jew because for Israel, the world is not complete, we are completing it.
I am a Jew because Israel places humanity and its unity above the nations and above Israel itself.
I am a Jew because, above the image of humanity, image of the divine Unity, Israel places the unity which is divine.
I came away with something much deeper. The appreciation of just how important this commandment is. Particularly in these times. Particularly in these times with threats, real or imagined, of deportations and registries.
We have been here before. We were strangers in a strange land. We have always been strangers in a strange land. Abraham was a stranger. And he and Sarah welcomed strangers, guests, to their tent open to all four sides. Moses was a stranger. Jacob was a stranger. He was sent out. Ruth was a stranger. From her otherness, and willingness to join us, by her lineage King David was born. By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept because we were strangers in a strange land.
Because of this wandering, because we understand the soul of the other, because we are the other, we have the obligation to treat the stranger with respect, care and love. This was the dream of Jacob, the angels ascending and descending, moving between the realms. The Torah and subsequent literature makes this very clear.
This is Jacob’s dream. This is the Makom I want to live in, the Makom I want to help build. A Place filled with G-d’s presence.
Chanukah is coming. The season of rededication. Of bringing light to the world. At this season, this is what I dedicate myself to. Loving the stranger who is everyone. Loving ourselves as ourselves for ourselves. Loving our neighbors as ourselves. Loving myself who is a stranger. Loving the stranger. Welcoming the stranger. With joy!
For anyone wishing to study the text, the full list of texts is available as an appendix upon request.