Loving the Stranger

Passover (Pesach) teaches Jews to welcome strangers into their homes.

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Reprinted with permission from the author.

"…I say to Him, 'God is it okay to luff strangers?' And God says to me, 'Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don't make strangers.'"
Kitchen Table Wisdom

Rachel Naomi Remen interviewed a Holocaust survivor, Yitzak, at a retreat for people with cancer, for her book Kitchen Table Wisdom. Initially uncomfortable being vulnerable with a group of strangers, Yitzak tells Rachel at their last meeting that he took up the matter with God and asked God what this retreat was about. Rachel wanted to know what God said in response to Yitzak. The result is the quote above. To Yitzak, the fellow cancer sufferers were strangers. To God, no one is a stranger.
welcoming strangers on passover
Remen tenderly describes how Yitzak’s youth made him close his heart. She, as a physician and a fine listener, found a way to open it. In essence, what Yitzak came to terms with is that a stranger is a human construct, not a divine one. We decide to make people close to us or to make them distant. We decide who to let into our world and who to keep away. Sometimes, a stranger is just someone you haven’t said hello to yet.

As we edge closer to Passover, the notion of strangers becomes more salient. We begin the Seder welcoming anyone who is hungry. We don’t ask for an ID card or a permission slip. We invite people to join our intimate circle not because we know them but because we don’t know them. Our job is to tell a story about oppression that happened because one group of people with power decided to make a small minority in their midst into strangers. You can oppress strangers. You can’t oppress friends. Sometimes, in order to hurt people we have to erase their familiarity.

Before my son’s bar mitzvah, a friend said, “Have you stopped looking at people yet?” I had no idea what she was talking about and asked for clarification. “Six months before a family event, don’t look at people you’re not inviting. If you look at them, it makes you feel bad.” This was interesting advice on how to turn friends into strangers. Fortunately, I did not follow it. Better that I feel bad than they feel bad.

Making New Friends

The Seder is the time when we do the opposite. We seek out strangers to make them friends. This idea is straight from the Bible. In Exodus 23:9, we read, "You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In Leviticus 19:33 we find, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. In Leviticus 19:34,we repeat this refrain, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.”

Later in prophetic texts, we confront Zekhariah 7:10: “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the stranger or the poor, and do not plot evil in your hearts against one another.” In Jeremiah 7:6-7, we read about the consequences of loving the stranger, “If you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place, eor walk after other gods to your hurt, then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.”

The list goes on. Why do we need to repeat this concept so many times and in so many different places? Something happens along the way in our integration and comfort in a new place. We forget our personal history. We forget about the alienation of the immigrant, the dislocation of the new resident, the discomfort of the new employee, new neighbor, new student. We don’t remember anymore what that anguish feels like. We need little reminders. It is we who make people strange to us, estranged from us. And it is we who have the power to make strangers friends.

As we clean out our cabinets and buy matzah, let’s remember the foundations of Passover from our story and the message the text clamors home. Invite strangers to your home. Now’s the time. We were strangers. We redeem our past when no one is a stranger.

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Erica Brown

Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and consults for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is an author-winning author and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award. Erica has served as an adjunct professor at American University and George Washington University. She lectures on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership.