Strangers and residents

By Rabbi David Stern
Parashat Behar

Eboo Patel, founder and president of Interfaith Youth Core (now Interfaith America), has long been a leading proponent for interfaith cooperation to reweave America’s social fabric.

Patel is an Ismaili Muslim who grew up in the Chicago suburbs. He tells the story of being invited for the first time to a birthday party when in grade school and how excited he was at this important symbol of entering the American mainstream. When his mother discovered that the food served at the party would be grilled hot dogs, she asked her son what any good Muslim mother would ask: “Will they be beef or pork?” When Eboo said he didn’t know, his mother said, “No problem” — she would send him to the party with two all-beef halal hot dogs in a plastic baggy, ready for cooking.

“Really?” he said. “First you name me Eboo and now you send me to a birthday party with hot dogs in a plastic bag?”

Mortified, Eboo went to the party and as other mysterious hot dogs were cooking away on the grill, Eboo slinked into the kitchen with his plastic bag, not sure what to do. There in the corner of the kitchen was another little boy, also holding a plastic bag with two hot dogs in it. Eboo approached him and said, “Your mom sent you with your own hot dogs too?” “Yes,” the boy said. “My name is Chaim. What’s yours?”

Patel’s story is a beacon for me, especially as both our American society and our Jewish community are riven by growing distrust, as we all find ourselves shaken by Oct. 7 and all that has happened since, as more and more we see difference first and see antagonism in every difference. Patel’s story not only dates from his childhood, but seems to come from another time and place altogether.

But I find another beacon shining in a still older story, in a verse about the Jubilee year from this week’s parashah: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine” — ki gerim v’toshavim atem imadi — “you are but strangers resident with Me” (Leviticus 25:23).

On a literal level, the verse teaches that the Israelites are God’s tenants in the land of Canaan and do not have the authority to sell it beyond reclaim. Together, this and a host of other verses in the Torah remind us that we are but custodians of God’s bountiful gifts — our land, our wealth, our potential.

Gerim v’toshavim — we are strangers and residents, residents and strangers. In two words, the Torah whispers an existential truth of our lives. We are, each of us, strangers and residents in the world. If we are blessed, we each know times of deep belonging and wholeness. And we surely know our wrenching dislocations — when illness strikes, when antisemitism spikes, when we feel alone.

The Hasidic master Rabbi Baruch ben Yehiel of Medzibezh (1753-1811) expands our understanding of the verse. He reads it to mean, “Only when we are strangers in this world of the everyday can we be truly resident with God.”

I hear Rabbi Baruch warning us against becoming too cozy with the material world and its seductions: wealth, power, status, achievement. I hear him teaching us that being a stranger in the world isn’t such a bad thing, especially if it attunes us to the alienation felt by others: in the devastating losses of our brothers and sisters on Oct. 7, in the suffering of innocent Palestinians in the war between Israel and Hamas, in antisemitism and racism and in every place where we bear witness to human beings deprived of dignity and freedom. That witness is the wisdom of otherness and it makes us resident with the God of justice and compassion. Our own strangeness can be a path to holiness. And maybe to a good hot dog too.

Rabbi David Stern is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El.

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