D'var Torah on Chayei Sarah

Posted by Roberta Elliott on Mon, Nov 16, 2009 at 16:43 pm

(Delivered at adult bat mitzvah on November 14, 2009)

So many things interested me in this parsha, but I have chosen to focus my remarks on the subject of kindness to guests/welcoming the stranger. First a little background:

At the beginning of the parsha, Avraham buys a cave as his family's burial ground - in perpetuity. He purchases it so there will be no question whatsoever of his and his descendents’ ownership and inheritance of the land itself. In other words, he establishes his irrefutable claim to the land.

As much as Avraham wants to solidify this relationship with the land, he does not want to integrate with the local population. When it is time to find Isaac a wife, he sends his senior servant to Padam-Haran, in his native Mesopotamia, to find a girl from his extended birth family, thereby ensuring that his future line will be separate from the Canaanites and remain endogamous.

In doing so, Avraham remains a perpetual stranger in Cana’an. If we look at the role of Eliezer in this story, we see that as Avraham's emissary, Eliezer is also a stranger in Padam Aran.

However Eliezer is more than just Avraham's emissary: he is his proxy. And, there is a midrash that basically says he is even his double. So this story illustrates to me that Avraham is a stranger in Cana'an and, once given a mission by God to start the Jewish people, he likewise becomes a stranger in the land of his birth. In other words, Avraham, is a perpetual stranger everywhere.

Now it's important to look at the behavior associated with dealing with strangers – then and now. In last week’s parsha, Va-eyra, we saw Avraham welcoming three strangers, or angels, into his tent. Their appearance is directly linked to the extension of his line - to him and Sarah giving birth to their first child in extreme old age. This is the introduction of the concept of kindness to strangers/hachnasat orchim, and Avraham’s practice of it quite simply changes the course of Jewish history and peoplehood.

Likewise with the encounter at the well. As we know, Eliezer is greeted by Rivka and offered water for himself and for his camels - a sign that he determined through prayer would indicate that Rebecca is the girl for Isaac. By stepping forward with kindness to Eliezer/Avraham, Rivka is chosen not only as Isaac's bride, but she, like Sarah becomes a matriarch of our entire line. To me this is the proof text that Avraham, father of us all, is a perpetual stranger because he is a Jew, and that we as Jews in this room exist primarily because of a foundational belief in kindness to the stranger.

The mitzvah of being kind to the stranger is repeated 36 times throughout the Torah - more than any other mitzvah. We are to be kind to those who are strangers among us, just as Rivka’s kindness enveloped Eliezer.

What does that mean in today's world? Do we, as Jews and perpetual strangers, have special obligations to welcome the stranger - into our country, into our neighborhood, into our homes?

Welcoming the stranger probably means something different to each one of us. To those who volunteer here every year with the Interfaith Hospitality Network, it means providing temporary and comfortable shelter for those immigrants or workers who need a helping hand. To others it means lobbying the state or Congress for more just and fair immigration laws.

For me, it has meant a new experience, with emphasis on experience.

Nearly two years ago, I returned to HIAS, the international migration agency of the American Jewish community, where I had worked 15 years earlier, and where my father worked as a refugee in wartime Lisbon in 1941. I do PR, which is one step removed from the heart of the activity of helping refugees and asylees. I decided it was time not just to talk the talk, but walk the walk. Although my father was a refugee from Hitler, and I had heard a number times of his escape and hiding in a hostile Europe, I really don’t know what it means to be a stranger, to be alone and frightened in a strange country. Though I had picked myself up at age 30 and moved to Israel – where I had no relatives and didn’t know a soul – from the instant I arrived – and throughout my five years there – I felt as though I had come home, embraced by my extended family. And that was half a lifetime ago. Now I wanted to know what it meant to be kind to a stranger in need of kindness.

So, since September, I have trained for and have become a volunteer visitor at
a detention center that incarcerates undocumented airport arrivals - many of whom have escaped to this country hoping to find asylum here.

So far, I have visited two detainees: Mahmoud is a 19-year-old from West Africa. His mother died giving birth to him, his father died five years ago and he has no siblings. He escaped because he was enslaved by a military man in his native country. He has no living relatives and says he knows no one here. If any of you saw the movie, The Visitor, you will understand how upset I am that since my first visit, Mahmoud has been removed from the center where I visited him with no word of where he was taken.

Ming is a 22-year-old-girl from southern China, where her parents are subsistence farmers who grow vegetables. She has a much younger brother, but hasn't spoken to any member of her family since she was apprehended at the airport upon her arrival for having insufficient travel documentation.

In my capacity as a visitor, I am not allowed to get involved in the legal merits of my detainees' cases. I am simply asked to visit them, and offer a compassionate ear.

Their lives in detention are numbingly the same and the isolation is intense. They get up at the same time every day. Have lockdowns four times a day while they are counted. Appear in court, frequently in chains. Have no outdoor privileges - there is not even a courtyard where they can fill their lungs with fresh air. Ming, who has not yet had her court hearing, has not been outside since her apprehension in mid-summer. They do one hour of menial labor each day - for $1. With that, they purchase supplemental food and phone cards from the detention commissary at higher prices than we pay at our local market. Mahmoud said he was fine cleaning toilets - it passed the time. He is illiterate except for the Arabic that he has learned to read the Koran. Ming reads, but there are only a few books in Chinese in the detention center's library and she has read them over and over. Visitors are not allowed to bring books to the detainees so she has asked me to write her a story and send it to her in a letter so she can work on her English. I speak to her in a poorly lit, close room with some 20 cubicles - me with my phone to my ear looking at her on the other side of the bulletproof glass, listening to her halting English as she tells me about her life inside. The full impact of this experience has not yet hit me, but I can tell you that the smile that lights up her face when she sees me tells me that these visits are God's work - and the purest expression of my faith.

There are several groups in the area that organize visits to the detention center. I volunteer through a church, but there is no Jewish group currently visiting detainees and it is my ultimate goal to organize one. I feel it is the least I can do to honor Avraham, the perpetual stranger, whose faith in other strangers brought us forth into this world and allows us all to be worshipping together as a community today.

Suggested questions:

  • What are the downsides to helping a stranger?
  • If helping people is so satisfying, why don’t we all do more of it?
  • As a human being, what are the many ways we can be a stranger?
  • Are all Jews destined to be perpetual strangers, like Avraham?

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