“So what are you going to talk about, Rabbi, with the world as it is?”
We all know the world is on fire. Climate catastrophes continue. Our democracy feels fragile in ways I don’t need to describe – you’re living them too. In many parts of this country, rights are under attack: my right to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy, or the rights of people like my friend Rabbi Daniel Bogard in Missouri to pursue appropriate medical care for his trans son.
This is our world, and the road to repair will be long. The climate crisis isn’t going anywhere, and I don’t think a quick fix will do it for democracy or human rights, either. The emotional and spiritual impact of living with all of this can be heavy.
Over the winter, I picked up a new coping mechanism: learning Arabic on Duolingo with a rabbi friend. Any time I caught myself doomscrolling, I’d open Duo and practice Arabic instead. His resolve to learn had come from a recent trip to Israel and the West Bank. My resolve to learn was because I hoped to travel there.
Learning a new language is an adult is humbling. After about nine months, I can say, or slowly read, things like قهوة سيث طيب/ kahwa Seth tayyib, “Seth’s coffee is good!” or هذا مطبخ واسع الحمد لله / hadhe matbakh wesia alhamdulillah, “this is a spacious kitchen, thanks be to God!” Basically I’m a pre-schooler.
I have a long way to go before I can engage in meaningful dialogue. Still, learning Arabic connects me outward, instead of stewing inside about all the things I can’t fix. And every word I learn brings me one step closer to being able to connect across what can sometimes feel like a vast chasm.
In early summer a few of us from this community went to Israel with members of two New York city shuls. At the end of our first full day, our dinner was in the home of Doris Hiffawi, in an Arab neighborhood of Yafo. She introduced herself as Christian Arab Palestinian Israeli.
Doris is Israeli: she’s a citizen of the state of Israel. She’s Arab and Palestinian: her lineage is Arab, her first language is Palestinian Arabic, her family has lived in Jaffa for over 100 years. And she’s Christian, which is the majority religious tradition here, but very much a minority one there.
Doris welcomed us into her elegant home with music and dancing. She and her mother had cooked us a spectacular meal of maqluba and shakshuka. She told us about being a minority within a minority several times over – an Arab citizen of Israel, and a Christian in a majority-Jewish state and in a majority-Muslim Arab world. She talked about choosing empowerment as a woman in what we might think of as a fairly patriarchal culture. She runs a small business welcoming strangers – Jewish Israelis and tourists like us – into her home for coffee or a meal and conversations.
And as we were departing, I managed to haltingly tell her, in Arabic, that الاكل جيد جدا شكرا جزيلا el-ekil jayyid jiden shukran jazilan – the food was very good, thank you very much.
Doris Haifawi speaks excellent English. Her Hebrew is gorgeous and fluent, unlike mine. I’ll never forget the way she beamed and clasped both of my hands and called me habibti when I thanked her in my slow and clunky Arabic. She had extended herself to us by opening her home and her story. When I made an effort to speak her language, I was extending myself to her, and I could feel the change between us.
This morning’s Torah reading is – to use a rabbinic term of art – a doozy. Sarah conceives a son whom she names Yitzhak, “Laughter.” Maybe you remember that Sarah had been barren, so she gave Avraham her handmaiden Hagar, “The Stranger,” and with Hagar he fathered Yishma’el, “God Listens.”
Now Sarah sees Yishma’el מצחק / m’tzahek, playing with Yitzhak. It’s not clear what that means. Rashi says he was doing something inappropriate, maybe engaging in idol worship. Ibn Ezra says he was just playing around, like kids do. The word m’tzahek shares a root with the name Yitzhak: was Ishmael pretending to be his brother? Part of Torah’s richness is that it can support all of these interpretations and more.
But there’s not much ambiguity in Sarah’s response. She says,“Send away that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share the inheritance of my son.” Even the language feels dehumanizing.
It’s possible that Sarah lashed out at Hagar because of her own trauma. Twice, when she and Abraham were traveling, he lied about her identity and pretended she was his sister. He was afraid that if people knew she was his wife, they would kill him and claim her. Sarah even wound up in Pharaoh’s harem at one point, though Torah is silent about how that impacted her.
I can say this: we know now that when we don’t work through trauma, we often unconsciously perpetrate it on others. Maybe those who wrote down the ancient stories in Torah knew that on some level too, even if they couldn’t yet articulate how putting a woman at risk of sexual assault could be traumatic.
In Islamic tradition, the expulsion of Hagar is seen as a necessary beginning to the story of Islam, foreordained by all-knowing God. In Jewish tradition, many commentators have wrestled with what appears to be Sarah’s deeply unethical act.
Torah is a powerful mirror for the self. Maybe we resist this piece of Sarah’s story because we know how easy it is to “other” someone, to see them as unworthy of our time or care. “I don’t want to share what I have with somebody like that. Let them fend for themselves somewhere else.”
And maybe that’s why Torah tells us, over and over, וַאֲהַבְתֶּ֖ם אֶת־הַגֵּ֑ר כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃, “You must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19) Torah is saying: our history must spur our empathy.
According to Talmud (Bava Metzia 59b), Torah gives us this mitzvah 36 times. Love the stranger. Do not wrong or oppress the stranger. Care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. In R. Danya Ruttenberg’s words:
“Everyone who has resources must ensure that those who are most marginalized are able to access some of those resources… [These] aren’t Divine Suggestions, they’re commandments.”
And they are so core that for at least two thousand years, they have been first among the critical mitzvot that we enjoin upon someone who joins the Jewish people. (Yevamot 47a)
Reading again about how Sarah othered Hagar – literally pushed her out of the tent and into the wilderness – I am here to say: we can be better than that. We can commit ourselves to not treating the stranger that way, to not othering anyone.
And I also need to acknowledge that power matters, and that our various identities impact how safe we are (or aren’t) with people unlike ourselves.
A thought exercise: imagine you’re a white man walking down a street at night. Notice what anxiety you do or don’t feel. Now imagine you’re a white woman. Maybe in your imagination you feel a bit less safe. When I was a teenager my mom taught me how to hold my car keys like a spiky weapon in my fist in case a man came after me.
Now imagine you’re a woman of color. Probably feeling even less safe, because in addition to sexual violence, you’re also worrying about racial violence. Now imagine you’re a queer woman of color: all of the above, plus homophobia. Imagine that you’re transgender or gender non-conforming, and the danger rises even more. We can see how risk increases as identity becomes more marginalized. This too is an exercise in empathy: remembering that when I feel safe, someone else might not.
Torah obligates us to love the stranger / the “other” and to help those in need. And sometimes the people who see us as “other” are actually dangerous to us. Our job is to discern when to reach out beyond our comfort zone, and when to withdraw in self-protection. For instance, I would not feel safe extending care toward someone who thinks Hitler had the right idea. Granted, I’m not sure how someone with those views changes, if not through genuinely meeting people like us. But our safety matters.
Working to end bigotry and othering is collective work. We’re in it together, and that togetherness is key. It’s ok to say, “this one is too personal, I need an ally to step up for me.” I don’t feel safe extending myself toward a neo-Nazi, but someone who’s not Jewish could do that work. Meanwhile, I’m a cisgender white woman, so I can stand up for my trans beloveds and for people of color.
Connection across difference, allyship, the pursuit of justice, empathy: these are lifelong practices.
A few weeks ago, the following question came my way:
“Where do we find hope and renewal when everything looks awful? You probably don’t have an answer, but I would really like for a spiritual leader to talk about how to deal with the world right now without falling into despair.”
We find hope in taking action. We find hope in connecting beyond ourselves. We find hope in helping the stranger, and in standing up for each other. We find hope in resisting doomscrolling and doing something.
This doesn’t feel like “enough” when the world is as broken as it is. But compared with doing nothing, it’s everything.
In the words of Vanessa Zoltan, a Jewish atheist chaplain whose parents survived the Shoah:
[T]]his is the lived truth of probably half the globe, right? That at any moment you might have to leave. And so you keep your eye out for who could help you… But also at any moment, someone else might be the person who needs to leave or needs help. So keep your eye out as to who you can help.
Here’s one way to connect: my family is part of the Haiti Host Team, working to resettle a Haitian refugee family locally. Yousemane and Josnel came here in July via the Welcome U.S. project. Our work is coordinated by Bridget Spann at First Congregational Church in Williamstown, and I’d love for members of our community to take part. “Welcoming the stranger” doesn’t get more literal than that.
Or: reach out to be trained on the security protocols here so you can be a door greeter at services, helping our community stay safe even as we literally welcome people in. Or maybe in the new year you’ll feel called to join up with our friends in the New Hope United Methodist community to re-start our participation in Take and Eat, the weekend Meals-on-Wheels program that Ed Oshinsky brought to us years ago, which we didn’t have the volunteer power to continue once the pandemic began.
When we help others we galvanize our sense of agency, which matters because feeling powerless leads directly to despair. And: doing this actually makes us feel better. So says Dr. Carolyn Schwartz, a professor at UMass Medical School. She arranged regular peer-support phone calls for people with multiple sclerosis… and found that those who offered support were helped more than those who received the support.
It turns out that the best way to be spiritually nourished and to feel hope is to extend oneself to someone else. Helping others is a way of helping ourselves; we’re not actually as separate as we think.
So much is broken: the climate, public trust, the national body politic, our capacity as a nation to even agree on a shared set of facts. Pretending it’s not broken doesn’t serve us. But we can reach into our tradition for the spiritual tools that do serve us, and I think this is one of them.
The Hebrew word mitzvah is related to the Aramaic tzavta, to connect or join. A mitzvah is literally something that connects us: to each other, to our traditions, to our Source.
The imperative to love the stranger and to lift up those who are marginalized are among our most core mitzvot. They’re central to who we are as Jews. They’re also at the literal heart of Torah. Torah has a chiastic structure: what’s most important is in the middle. And this verse is in the middle of the middle book, Torah’s deep heart.
On Yom Kippur afternoon we’ll hear instructions to provide for those in need and to act justly, leading up to the verse at Torah’s heart: “Love your neighbor / your other as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18) And how do we show that love? By feeding the hungry and acting justly. It all comes down to loving the stranger and helping those in need and doing what’s right.
This is the life-giving spring in the desert of our wandering. And it’s up to us whether we let it become choked with sand, or whether we help “justice well up like water, righteousness like an unfailing stream.” (Amos 5:24)
These are the words Rabbi Rachel offered at First Day Rosh Hashanah services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)