We Were Strangers Too

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Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz, Judea Reform Congregation
Durham, NC
January 10, 2010
Available online at:
Text: Exodus

The story of the Jewish people is the story of being a stranger in a strange land. From the moment we were cast out of Eden, the life work of our ancestors was making sense of new ground.

Abraham and Sarah left their ancestral home to journey to a land they had never seen. Escaping famine in the land of Canaan, Jacob and his sons built a new life in the land of Egypt. And generations later, Ruth journeyed from Moab to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi, and met her destiny as the ancestress of King David.

Our story is the story of being a stranger in a strange land. Our story is also a story of learning to take up the cause of the weak and the vulnerable.

This past week, we read the first section of the book of Exodus, the story of our formation as a people. At the end of Genesis, we learned that we came to the land of Egypt on the brink of starvation. Egypt was a land of opportunity, with its storehouses of grain and its fertile soil for grazing.

The early Israelites settled in the region of Goshen, and flourished there. Joseph, who had emigrated earlier, worked his way up to a position of power and influence. He lived amongst the Egyptians and even saved them from impending famine with his wisdom, foresight and organizational skills.

Then, however, a new Pharaoh came to town. This Pharaoh did not know Joseph, and did not understand the contributions that Joseph and his family had made to their society during their time there. He only saw that they were the “other” and that there were too many of them.

And he began to be afraid. What if the Israelites put an undue strain on Egypt’s resources? What if they became so numerous that they posed a threat to national security? How could the Pharoah know that the Hebrews would be loyal to him during an international conflict?

And so Pharaoh subjected the Israelites to harsh labor. He restricted their movement and their freedom to practice their religion. He even attempted multiple acts of genocide against the Israelites. It was only with a great struggle, and with great leadership, that we emerged from this oppression into the light of freedom. Halfway between Pharaoh’s land and our own, we entered into our covenant with G-d.

And so it is only fitting that this covenant with G-d should tell us how we should treat the stranger in our midst.

In the texts that record our covenant with G-d, the presence of the stranger is a given. When we are commanded to observe the Sabbath, we are commanded to let everyone in our community share in the rest and celebration that comes with this weekly festival: our families, our employees, our livestock, and “the stranger who is within your settlements” (Ex. 20:10).

We are never told who this stranger is and how he or she came to be living among us. But more than 36 times in the Torah, we are commanded to include, protect, support, and even love the stranger in our midst. We are asked to leave food behind for them when we harvest our crops, and warned not to oppress them or deceive them in our business dealings. This is because we look out for all of those who are weak and vulnerable–widows and orphans, the disabled and the poor–but also because we “know the heart of the stranger,” having been strangers ourselves in the land of Egypt.

Our arrival in the Promised Land did not, unfortunately, signal the end of our  experience as strangers in a strange land. Our sovereignty in the land of Israel was short-lived; we found ourselves to be newcomers, immigrants, and the “other” countless times. In some places we flourished. In others we were oppressed. In some places we dwelt apart. In others we became an integral part of the fabric of the society we lived in. But in each place and time, we knew the heart of the stranger.

Even in America, especially in America, we know what it is to arrive with nothing and depend on the kindness of our host country. For more than three centuries, Jews have been coming to America to escape oppression and to seek out new opportunities for themselves and their children.

As a people, we are an immigrant success story. Our grandparents and great-grandparents lived in poverty and worked menial jobs  so that their children could pursue higher education and fulfilling work.

My own great-grandparents came to this country with nothing, and eventually opened a grocery store in Harlam to put their children through college. All of their children and grandchildren are college graduates; their great-grandchildren are all on that path as well. My generation of the family grew up enjoying all of the comforts and opportunities that the American dream promised them, and many they could not even have imagined.

They were strong, hard-working, and self-reliant, but they did not accomplish all of this on their own. They were sustained by the generous services offered by public schools, libraries, and clinics. These services were offered to immigrant and citizen alike, because the Americans, too, knew the heart of the stranger.

Today, it seems, many in this country have become like the Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. Many have forgotten that this country was built by immigrants, that in fact all of us are descended from immigrants.

It is not enough that we are shutting our doors, now we are building fences. We are actively shutting, and throwing, the stranger out. Our actions have separated families, and instilled fear in the heart of the immigrant, even when he or she knows that his or her cause is just.

We have become like the Pharaoh who is afraid of the other, afraid of what the other might do to our economy and our security. And we, of all people, should know that this kind of fear has never yielded a positive result. Knowing the heart of the stranger, we need to take up the cause of the stranger, and ensure that the security and opportunities we were afforded when we came to the country are extended to those who are living as strangers in this country today, and to all of those who wish to live productive lives in America in the future.

In this vein, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has demanded that we seek immigration reform that provides effective and humanitarian border control policy; opportunities for those living here already to become permanent, lawful residents; a reduction in the time that families are separated; and more avenues for legal entry into the United States.

In last week’s Torah portion, Pharaoh issued an unspeakable decree. He commanded two midwives to kill the newborn sons of the Israelites, because he fears that they will one day rise up against him. The midwives did not comply with this request. They did not wish to see the world in terms of “male” and “female,” “Hebrew” and “Egyptian,” “self” and “other.” Like us, they knew that all people were made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of G-d, and thus they are inherently good, and have unlimited potential to do good, if only they are protected, nurtured, and kept free from oppression.

As Jews, we must look beyond external differences, beyond prejudices, and beyond xenophobia, as we strive towards an immigration policy that respects the inherent dignity and humanity of all human beings.

This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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  1. Reverend Lino P. Magaptoc says

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