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.