The Story Begins When the Stranger Arrives

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Vayera, in observance of Immigrant Justice Shabbat. Cross-posted to This Is What A Rabbi Looks Like.

The story starts when the stranger comes to town.

This is one of the cardinal rules of storytelling. The arrival of a stranger can be a breath of fresh air, a new love interest, a source of tumult, or, in most plot-lines, some combination of the three.

The arrival of the stranger is also a recurring theme in the Bible, especially in this week’s parasha. This week, we read several stories that start with the arrival of strangers: the most famous of which are the announcement of Isaac’s birth, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh.

Parashat Vayera opens with the arrival of three strangers in Mamre, where Abraham lives with his wife Sarah. Seeing three men approaching from a distance, Abraham leaps into action: preparing—or having his wife and servants prepare—food, drink, water to bathe, and a place to rest for his guests. Abraham doesn’t know that the strangers are there to bring good news—that Sarah, long barren, will finally give birth to a son. The story gives the impression that this is just what Abraham does for all weary travelers.

This act of hospitality will result in a tremendous reward, but Abraham has no way of knowing this when he does it.

Cut to Sodom and Gomorroh, where two strangers have just arrived at the city gate. Here they are explicitly described as “angels,” whereas in the previous story, it is not clear whether the strangers are human or divine. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, doesn’t want the men to sleep alone in the city square—he knows his neighbors aren’t the most hospitable people. Indeed, no sooner does Lot invite the strangers in, than the townspeople come pounding on the door. They want Lot to surrender the two strangers for their own nefarious purposes, but Lot refuses, offering his own daughters instead. The townspeople reject this offer, and are about to attack Lot, when the angels intervene, blinding the townspeople and rescuing Lot’s family from the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorroh.

Lot’s hospitality temporarily endangers his entire family, but Lot has no way of knowing this when he does it.

Later in the parasha, we see the tables turned, and Abraham’s family become the strangers: Abraham and Sarah, sojourning in Gerar, find themselves in a vulnerable position as strangers in a strange land. Hagar and Ishmael, once an integral part of Abraham and Sarah’s family in spite of Hagar’s foreign origin, are banished from the household and nearly die of thirst.

The story begins when the stranger arrives. Sometimes it turns out for the best, sometimes it leads to something traumatic. But we have no way of knowing, until we see how the story unfolds.

The rabbis tease out of this parasha two very different approaches to welcoming strangers. Abraham is what we would probably today call an outreach and engagement specialist. According to rabbinic legend, Abraham kept the four sides of his tent open, so that strangers coming from all directions could enter right away. But he also went out in order to find strangers and bring them home with him. Moreover, he set up well-stocked way-stations all over the desert, so that he could serve the stranger even when they weren’t going to cross his path (Avot De Rabbi Nathan 7).

Taking the opposite approach were the people of Sodom and Gomorroh. Legend has it that these cities held unimaginable wealth: the roots of their vegetables were literally encrusted with gold flakes and jewels. But this led them to take a protective stance, putting up barriers to keep strangers out, and harshly mistreating them if they dared to come in. They attackedthem physically, robbed them of their property, imposed ridiculous tolls and fees for entry, and even executed those who dared to help them (Sanhedrin 109a-b).

The Jewish tradition praises Abraham’s behavior, which we call hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger. But it’s not difficult to see why we often take a more protective approach.

This week, we watched in horror as the news unfolded, regarding a terrorist attack in New York City. Eight people were killed and 11 injured when a man plowed a pickup truck into the bike path along the Hudson River. As the story developed, we learned that the man had been radicalized and committed this heinous crime as a purposeful act of terror. Some voices are choosing to emphasize that the man was an immigrant, and that incidents like this wouldn’t happen if we had higher walls or closed borders.

But that is just untrue. Putting aside how many acts of terror originate from native-born Americans, we must remember that, for every person we let into this country who ultimately hurts another person, there are thousands of people who come here to live peacefully with their neighbors, and contribute positively to the country we all live in. Like Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael, each of these immigrants took great risks coming here, sustained by their dreams of a better life. And when that better life is threatened, it falls on our community to speak up.

The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism has marked tonight as an Immigrant Justice Shabbat, with a particular focus on DREAM-ers. Dreamers are immigrants between the ages of 16 and 31, who have been in the country for at least five years. There are currently 800,000 people in this program, 87% of which are currently in the workforce. Their average age upon arrival was six and a half. The 2012 DREAM Act, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, made it possible for young immigrants to get work permits and attend school without fear of deportation.

Just two months ago, it was announced that this program would be terminated in six months. The only hope for DREAM-ers now is for Congress to pass a Clean DREAM Act, which would grant conditional permanent resident status for all DREAM-ers, as well as lawful permanent resident status and a path to citizenship for those Dreamers who attend college, work in the US, or serve in the U.S. military.

The Religious Action Center has also declared this Monday, November 6th, as a call-in day, to encourage our senators and representatives to co-sponsor the new DREAM Act. After Shabbat, I encourage you  to learn more about this legislation, and how you can help turn these immigrants’ dreams into reality.

Because our news cycle is so often dominated by stories of immigrants who do harm, let us consider the stories of immigrants doing good:

Benita Veliz came to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents in 1993, when she was 8. Benita graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class at the age of 16. She received a full scholarship to St. Mary’s University, where she graduated from the Honors program with a double major in biology and sociology. Benita’s honors thesis was on the DREAM Act. She dreams of becoming an attorney. In a letter to Senator Durbin (IL), Benita wrote: “I can’t wait to be able to give back to the community that has given me so much. I was recently asked to sing the national anthems for both the U.S. and Mexico at a Cinco de Mayo community assembly. Without missing a beat, I quickly belted out the Star Spangled Banner. To my embarrassment, I then realized that I had no idea how to sing the Mexican national anthem. I am American. My dream is American. It’s time to make our dreams a reality. It’s time to pass the Dream Act.”

Sometimes the stranger brings something bad…and sometimes the stranger brings something good. But, like our biblical ancestors, we don’t get to know that in advance. This leaves us with two choices: do we take an Abrahamic approach, letting everyone in in hopes of doing good? Or do we follow the example of Sodom and Gomorroh, shutting people out, even when it means committing an act of cruelty, even when it precipitates our own downfall?

Thirty-six times the Torah tells us to welcome the stranger, to live with our doors and our hearts open. We see in tonight’s stories how doing so can make us vulnerable. But let us not forget how opening our doors to the stranger can also open doors for us: doors of possibility and doors of blessing.

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