Strangers in Strange Lands

Strangers in Strange Lands; December 18, 2015; Rabbi Karen Citrin

           “I have been a stranger in a strange land.”  Perhaps you have heard this saying before.  Did you know that it comes from the Torah, from the second chapter in the book of Exodus?  After Moses killed a taskmaster and fled Egypt, he met the daughters of Jethro, the Midianite priest at the well.  He took Zipporah as his wife and she bore a son, whom he named Gershom, for he said, “I have been a ger, a stranger in a strange land.”  (Ex. 2:22)

            The all-knowing Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof went on to quote this biblical passage, although he attributes it to Abraham, and then stands corrected by his friend, that it was actually Moses who said this.  The self-mocking, gently humorous scene in Fiddler highlights the point that this saying has been a mantra for the Jewish people.  I agree with Tevye.  It doesn’t matter if it was Abraham or Moses who said it.  For thousands of years, we have been strangers in strange lands.

            We find this truth in our Torah portion for the week, Vayigash.  Joseph’s brothers stand before him, far from home, strangers in a strange land, seeking sustenance in the midst of famine.  Cantor Faith just chanted the climactic moment in the story (Genesis 45).  After Joseph has been met with betrayal, slavery, and imprisonment, after he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and rose to power, finally, Joseph, now second in command to Pharaoh and distributor of food in starving Egypt, faces his treacherous brothers.  Joseph has both the opportunity and power to save them, to have them punished, or even killed. 

            What does he do?  Joseph acts with forgiveness, compassion, and reconciliation.  Joseph forgives and absolves his brothers.  He lets go of anger.  He welcomes his brothers, kisses each one of them, and offers them new life. 

               Think for a moment about this spirit of welcome, even in the face of years of mistrust and alienation.  We can all think back to countless times in the history of our people when we were shunned rather than welcomed.  It has been a mere seventy years since our people were banned from the nations of the world, faced immigration quotas, and our very identity as Jews made illegal.  Some can remember that in 1939, the United States refused to let the S.S. St. Louis dock in our country, sending over 900 Jewish refugees back to their port of origin in Germany, where many were killed – a tragic decision made in a political climate of fear and suspicion.  Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, Vice President of Community Engagement at the HIAS organization, reminds us that as Jews, “We remember all too well how our country did not discern the difference between the actual enemy and the victims of the enemy.” (“Reminding Ourselves That Light Can Overcome Darkness,” 12/11/15)

            In the wake of the current Syrian refugee crises, I have come to see that the plight of refugees is a human, and, a profoundly Jewish issue.  HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) organized a letter signed by more than 1,200 rabbis from 47 states across all denominations to elected officials calling on our country to uphold our great legacy as a nation that welcomes refugees.  And in a letter written a month ago, 15 Jewish organizations – including the American Jewish committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, and the Union for Reform Judaism – expressed their support for the resettlement program of Syrian refugees in the U.S.

            What’s a Jew to do in a world like this?  A world with bombs exploding and the indiscriminate spray of bullets in Israel, in Paris, in California.  Certainly, terror demands a vigorous response.  All of us who care about democracy, value freedom of religion, diversity and human dignity must stand together, addressing terrorism through force when necessary, but also through intelligence, education, and by offering a more compelling vision of the future for those who are desperate and lost.  The greatest weapon we have is our value system that champions liberty, democracy, and human dignity. 

            It’s true that terrorism in the 21st century is disproportionately rooted in the Islamic world.  But we must not stereotype 1.6 billion Muslims because of some who distort their faith toward evils ends.  We should recognize the difference between the enemy and the victims of the enemy.  Let’s not make the same mistake.

            Like Joseph, we can learn to see the other as our brother, a fellow human being.   We were once strangers in a strange land.  And so we are reminded again and again to welcome and not oppress the stranger. 

            I would like to share a perspective from Rabbi Aaron Panken, the President of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, who you may recall was our scholar in residence here at Temple Israel two years ago.  Last week he wrote an article entitled, “How Donald Trump Stole Hanukkah” (Huffington Post, 12/10/15).  He writes, “I hold dear the memories of my people’s fear and loss, the stories of masses fleeing for their lives only to be rejected at international borders, and the acts of courage that the righteous of other faiths committed to protect those in danger.  Do we want to live in a country where our Muslim community, or any community of shared belief, is subject to such wholesale maltreatment, especially in a response to the atrocities of a few?”

            Rabbi Panken was in Paris the night of the attacks last month.  Along with 9/11, he has seen first hand and up close, the unbearable physical and psychological damage terrorism has done the world over.  Yet, he teaches, “the United States has learned that security must never be obtained at the expense of destroying who we are as a country, a beacon of hope in a world rife with discrimination against those of differing beliefs.” 

            As Jews, we just finished celebrating the holiday of Chanukah, our holiday of light, the symbol of hope, religious liberty, and miraculous peace.  These are dark days, and the world has felt shattered and frightening.  I believe that the American soul can learn not only from Joseph’s example, but also from the enduring message of Hanukkah.  At a time when Jews worldwide celebrate religious freedom, we are reminded by what defines us as Americans: that we are one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.  We can open doors to those who are fleeing for their lives.   

            Every Kislev, at this darkest point of the year, we gather together to reaffirm our commitment to courageously stand up for what we believe: that Jews, Muslims, Christians, immigrants, African Americans - all people should not be persecuted but instead be able to live their lives in safety and freedom and with dignity.  Let us remember that light can overcome darkness, and that we can be part of making this so.  In these dark days, let us find ways to move toward the light.      

Opening Our Tents To Marriage Equality

Rabbi Karen Citrin  
Picnic Service

“How good are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel.” (Numbers 24:5)  We just heard these words chanted from the Torah scroll.  Let’s take a moment to go back a bit in the story. 

Near the end of forty years in the wilderness, the children of Israel were marching towards the land of Canaan.  They wanted to follow the major road that led through the country of Moab.  Balak, the king of Moab, didn’t want some 600,000 tribal people walking through his country.  So he hired Bilam, a prophet of sorts, to stop the families of Israel with a curse.

Shelach L’cha – Yes We Can

Rabbi Micah Citrin

Yes, we can! Those words rang out across our nation in 2008 as Senator Barak Obama ran for President of the United States.  Whether you supported President Obama’s candidacy or not, we can recognize that his campaign slogan ignited the passion of many across the nation.  Yes, we can!  These simple, unabashedly optimistic words motivated people to become involved with the election, and to feel a sense of hope for the possibilities of the future.  Yes, we can!  It feels good to say.

In this week’s Torah portion, we literally have the Jewish equivalent of “Yes, we can!” 

View From The Mountain Top

Rabbi Karen Citrin

One of the things that I love about Tulsa is the excellent selection of art and culture that one can find in this midsize city. I have enjoyed the Tulsa Ballet and the Philbrook Art Museum. And just a couple weeks ago on a rainy mother’s day, I finally made it to the Gilcrease Museum for my first time.

I have often enjoyed art museums, especially the sensation of looking at the world through another’s perspective. I was recently fascinated to discover that there are multiple artistic depictions of the quintessential Shavuot image of Moses receiving the tablets of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.

When The Earth Quakes

Rabbi Micah Citrin

On Shabbat we stand in awe of the natural world.  The seventh day invites us to see creation through eyes of wonder as we marvel at what the Power that Makes For All Life has formed.  No words capture this perspective better than the Psalms that the mystics of Tzfat wove into the liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat.  Let these verses wash over you:

“Let the heavens rejoice and the earth exult; let the sea and all within it thunder (Ps.        96).”

“Let the sea and all within it thunder, the world and all its inhabitants; let the rivers        clap their hands, the mountains sing joyously together at the presence of Adonai (Ps.        98).”

Passover Yizkor

Rabbi Micah Citrin

Nothing looks more beautiful, festive, and full, than the seder table.  Flowers in the vase, candles, the seder plate containing the symbols that remind us of our freedom, and place settings that will invite all the guests – family and friends, young and old to participate.  There will be four cups of wine, courses of gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, and brisket, songs, stories, and laughter.  Amid this image of fullness, one symbol stands apart in silence and loneliness.  Elijah’s cup brims with wine keeping a quiet vigil on the table.  This solitary sentry keeps watch over the proceedings.  Its contents will not be imbibed, nor will it be refilled like the other cups of wine.  Elijah’s cup waits for the guest who never really arrives.

I like to watch Elijah’s cup and how it remains steady and unchanging throughout the commotion of the seder. 

Shabbat HaGadol: Four Questions To Ask As We Prepare For Passover

Rabbi Karen S. Citrin

Tonight, I hope you are prepared.  I hope you are comfortable and feeling alert and awake.  Because tonight is “Shabbat HaGadol,” literally “the Great Shabbat,” which is what the Shabbat before Passover is called.  It is traditionally the time for the longest sermon of the year!

Why, you might wonder, a long sermon to prepare for Passover?  Well, there is a lot to do to get ready.  Hopefully, you have not left it to the last minute, like me.  Especially here in Tulsa, as I discovered yesterday, stores can run out of matzah

Vayakhel: Come Together Right Now

Rabbi Karen Citrin
“TGIS” Service

Most of us here are familiar with certain nursery rhymes that have stuck in our heads over the years. These rhymes also teach certain truths.

There’s the rhyme that speaks to the mundane routines of daily life: “One, two, buckle my shoe. Three, four, open the door. Five, six, pick up sticks. Seven, eight lay them straight. Nine, ten, do it a-gain.”

There’s the rhyme that became a song, which speaks to the mystery of the universe: “Twinkle, twinkle little star. How I wonder what you are. Up above the world to high. Like a diamond in the sky.”

The Pursuit of Happiness

Rabbi Karen CitrinMr. Finkelstein, so the story goes, suffers severe pains in his chest and is rushed to one of the finest hospitals in America, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.  For seven days, he receives treatment there.  Then suddenly, without explanation, he checks himself out and has himself transferred to a small, rundown Jewish hospital on New York’s Lower East Side.

The doctor on the ward is intrigued by his decision.  “What was wrong with the Mayo Clinic?” he asks.  “Was it the doctors?  Didn’t they find out what was wrong with you?”

“The doctors,” says Finkelstein, “were outstanding.  Geniuses!  I can’t complain.”

Israel’s Future and You

Rabbi Micah Citrin

In October of 1947, just weeks before the United Nations was to vote on a partition plan that would create a Jewish and Arab state in Palestine, President Harry Truman received the following letter:

Dear Mr. President:
“Again I am appealing to you on behalf of my People.  The future of one and one-half million Jews in Europe depends on what happens at the present meeting of the United Nations…to alleviate further suffering by these helpless people.

How they will be able to survive another winter in concentration camps and the hell-holes in which they live, is beyond my imagination. 

Circles of Community

Rabbi Karen Citrin   
Yitro – Shabbat in the Round

To be a modern Jew, I have found it helpful to know how to navigate some Jewish websites. To name a few, there’s:, (the Union for Reform Judaism),,, and While these sites are certainly no replacement for good Jewish books, sometimes one can glean interesting perspectives online.

I recently learned of a hip Jewish website called To kvell is the Yiddish term meaning, to burst with pride. It is loosely a Jewish twist to parenting website, but it also contains broader perspectives on Jewish life.

Parashat Bo 2015 “Plagues and Mirrors”

Rabbi Micah Citrin  

I have a vivid memory from childhood of the first time I saw the epic film, The Ten Commandments.  As the Israelites huddled in their homes with blood smeared across lintel and doorpost, the 10th plague, the slaying of the firstborn begins.  Green finger-like wisps of smoke slowly branch out across the screen.  Silently and subtly this representation of the angel of death creeps through the city of Pharaoh as the suffering cries of Egyptian parents pierce the night.

The image of this scene remains with me, and looking back, DeMille’s creative genius becomes apparent.  In contrast to many of the other grand, earth shaking plagues like blood, locusts, or hail, DeMille harnesses the quiet power of the most terrible plague. 

“The Worst of Times and The Best of Times”

Rabbi Karen Citrin

As Jews, we are doubly blessed, or cursed, to notice the passing of time. We get to celebrate not one but two New Years. Maybe it’s since I’ve entered my fifth decade of life, that I seem to notice the brevity of life and the passing of time more and more. Of course tonight is extra special, the first Shabbat of the new secular year 2015.

I am reminded of the words of British Author, Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair,

The Pits In Our Country

Rabbi Karen Citrin
December 12, 2014

This Shabbat begins a new cycle of familial relationships, conflicts, and intrigue. Tonight, we start the story of Joseph, which will cycle through the next few weeks of Torah.

The story reveals the quintessential message of rising out of the depths of despair to new heights of comfort and well-being. Most of us are familiar with the tale. Jacob signals Joseph out by giving him and none of his other sons a beautiful coat of colors. In our home that would have been met with a, “That’s not fair!” Then, following not one but two vivid dreams in which Joseph’s brothers bow before him and serve him, they understandably grow jealous. They encounter Joseph alone while tending his flock and proclaim,

Parashat Toledot Identity “The Jewish Playground”

Rabbi Micah Citrin

Who are you?  If someone asks you that question how do you answer?  Do you say what your name is?  Do you say, I am the son or daughter of? Do you share what your profession is, that you are a husband or wife, brother or sister?  Do you respond, I am an artist, a musician, an athlete, a scholar, survivor?  Do you say, I am an American or I am a Jew?  There are many ways we might answer this question when others ask us who we are.  Perhaps the most important person who deserves an answer to this question is our self when we look in the mirror and ask, “Who am I?”

Who are you?  One answer to this question does not exist.  It depends on who is asking and in what context.

Floating Takes Faith

Rabbi Karen Citrin
August 1, 2014

The Torah likes to repeat itself. It embraces the “broken record” method of conveying a lesson. Our portion begins with the reiteration of the Israelites’ lament, some would call it whining, why did you take us out of Egypt? This life in the wilderness is so hard. When are we going to get to Israel? Are we there yet?

In this portion and book called Devarim, meaning words, Moses shares his final words of encouragement and hope to the children of Israel. He tells them, in the verses I just chanted, “Have no fear. God is with you, just as God did for you in the wilderness,

Navigating the Wilderness: Torah and Temple Today

Rabbi Karen Citrin

The existentialist poet, Henry David Thoreau, wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

And farther west in our country, the great environmentalist and preserver of the natural world, John Muir, wrote, “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.”

Standing with Israel

Rabbi Karen Citrin

Jewish tradition teaches, “Know before whom you stand – Da lifnei atah omed.” (Ex. 3:5; Brachot 28b)  I like to think this means, know what you stand for.  Know what it is important to you.  Stand up.  Take a stand. 

Jewish tradition also affirms this week that when you go to take a stand, there is a difference between zealotry and activism.  This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, contains examples of both.

Pinchas, Moses’ great-nephew, took his spear, charged into a tent, and with one thrust, killed an Israelite man and his Midianite woman. 

Celebrating Self-Evident Truths

Rabbi Micah Citrin

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   238 years ago these simple, eloquent words radiated across the Atlantic, and entered the consciousness of the world from that time forth.  These immortal words are seared into the hearts and minds of all Americans and remain the foundational value upon which our society rests.  The notion that each human being has inherent rights connected to one’s life, one’s dignity through freedom, and the ability to shape a life of fulfillment truly connects to the Transcendent.  It is a holy idea, religious in spirit, yet devoid of religious coercion whose roots can be found in the first chapter of our Torah as Genesis 1:27 declares,

“No More Drought – Drawing From the Well”

Rabbi Karen Citrin

This evening I would like to share with you a postcard written by a sixteen-year-old boy who is attending one of the URJ summer camps. His parents received his note this past week. Reuben writes:

Hello (mom), I am having an awesome time at camp. Everyone at camp is awesome. Our session is really awesome and we’re all getting along well. I can’t believe that you haven’t sent me anything yet. How are you and dad? Please fix my watch.
Write soon. Love, Reuben

Would you agree that Reuben thinks Jewish summer camp is awesome?!