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.

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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.

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