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The moral of the story is: Care!

Thirty six.

Conservatively speaking, that’s the number of times that the phrase “Do not oppress the stranger” appears in our tradition.

I say “conservatively” because that accounts only for the times we hear it in the Torah.

This admonition repeats and echoes through Ketuvim and the Prophets—

The voice of Zecharia calls out to us, clarifying: “Do not oppress the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger nor the poor, and let none of you devise evil against his brother in your heart.”[1]

Isaiah reminds: “Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice;  Aid the wronged. Uphold the rights of the orphan; Defend the cause of the widow.” [2]

The Jewish tradition speaks unambiguously to the moment in which we now find ourselves. To live a life guided by the laws and customs of the Jewish people, described for us by Torah, and later by the prophets is to remember that we too were strangers, and we must never oppress those who find themselves as strangers, too.

One of the first rules for studying the Hebrew Bible: if the text tells us not to do something, it is likely because it was something that was already being done.

Don’t oppress the widow!

A direct response to those who would afflict those who find themselves alone.

Do not oppress the orphan!

A pointed reminder to those would cause further pain to those who find themselves parent-less.

Do not oppress the stranger!

A textual talisman against the dislike for that which is unlike. A reminder that oppression towards the other,  has been around for the history of humanity.

We know that the story of the Jewish people encoded in our very souls is one of migration and of journey: the two core stories of our people are based on leaving one land, and going to another.

First, with Avram heeding the call of Lech-l’cha, going forth from his birthplace to a new, and unknown land. And then, the story of the Israelites journey away from Pharaoh’s Egypt.

When we say that we remember the experience of being strangers, we mean that it is essential to who we are as a people.It comes as no surprise then that our Torah’s concern with the experience of immigrants starts not with policy, or legality, or borders, but instead- with the experience of a single person: their dignity, and their humanity.

I could probably quite literally stand here all night, citing the many times that the most sacred texts of our tradition call out to us with rejoinders against oppression— telling us that above all else, we are to remember the experience of being the ger— and to never again oppress those who find themselves without a home, seeking safe haven.

To do so would be, in some ways, the easiest thing I could do.

Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments on the prevalence of this theme in our tradition:

It is terrifying in retrospect to grasp how seriously the Torah took the phenomenon of xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. It is as if the Torah were saying with the utmost clarity: reason is insufficient. Sympathy is inadequate. Only the force of history and memory is strong enough to form a counterweight to hate.

Sympathy, is inadequate.

Sympathy gives us the false sense of relief that we are no longer accomplices to the suffering. Our sympathy for the situation taking place at our borders and in detention camps, unwittingly proclaims not only our innocence but our impotence to do anything about it.

What then, are we to do?

Susan Sontag wrote in her piece “Regarding the Pain of Others”:

To set aside the sympathy we extend to others beset by war and murderous politics for a consideration of how our privileges are located on the same map as their suffering, and may—in ways that we prefer not to imagine— be linked to their suffering, [is] a task for which the painful stirring images supply only the initial spark.[3]

What we are called to do in this moment goes far beyond remembering our own immigrant stories; it digs deeper than latching on to that ancestral memory of being a stranger— it requires us to admit our own complicity in this situation.

And, perhaps more urgently, it requires us to care.

To care deeply, and to care relentlessly.

My girls were given a collection of Maurice Sendak stories for their birthday, in a sweet little box called “The Nutshell Library’  In it is the story of Pierre— the boy, who famously, didn’t care. Our friend Marion Adler spoke of Pierre this past Yom Kippur, comparing him to the biblical Jonah, who must first go on a long journey of resistance and denial before he can heed God’s call.

Similarly, the eponymous Pierre of Sendak’s book finds he is only able to declare “I care!” after he is swallowed whole by a lion.. The final verse of the book reads:

They rushed the lion into town The doctor shook him up and down And when the lion gave a roar Pierre fell out upon the floor He rubbed his eyes and scratched his head And laughed because he wasn’t dead His mother cried and held him tight His father asked, are you alright? Pierre said I am feeling fine Please take me home, it’s half past nine The lion said, if you would care To climb on me, I’ll take you there Then everyone looked at Pierre Who shouted yes, indeed, I care! The lion took them home to rest And stayed on as a weekend guest The moral of Pierre is, care![4]

The moral of the story— really, the moral of every story that we hold to be sacred is CARE.

We must care, relentlessly.

We must care, wholeheartedly.

To care, requires us to keep our heads and hearts above water: not to give in to the luxury of being overwhelmed— when truly, it would be so easy, and even understandable.

These are days that overwhelm, and threaten to overtake us as we find our spirits and our souls battered by the images and the sounds of children and families suffering.

And so we hold in our hands two seemingly opposite truths on this Shabbat:

On the one hand: we are reminded of our responsibility as people of faith to care, to act, to advocate, to donate, and to educate.

In that hand we hold the Talmudic wisdom that teaches that ‘whoever can prevent the sin of his fellow citizens and does not, is responsible for the sins of his fellow citizens.’[5]

In the other hand, we hold the wisdom of Shabbat: the wisdom of the flight attendants who remind us that before we help others with their oxygen mask, we must put on our own.

The Jewish value of pikuah nefesh— of saving a life is not meant only to refer to others: we must care for our own souls, so that we can wake up tomorrow, ready to continue the radical and sacred act of caring deeply, and relentlessly for others.

We can be heartbroken, but we can’t be hopeless.

Thirty six times.

Thirty six utterances that remind us not to oppress the stranger.

A double helping of chai— a double portion of life, for the parents and children who seek safe haven, together.

May we find within ourselves deeper reserves of strength and perseverance to make real this vision of justice.

[1]Zecharia 7:10

[2]Isaiah 1:10

[3]Susan Sontag. Regarding the Pain of Others. pp. 102-103

[4]Maurice Sendak. Pierre.

[5]BT Shabbat 54b


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