I recently began studying a new book with my chevruta (study partner), Musar HaTorah v’aYahadut, written by Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamaret. A late 19th-early 20th century rabbi in Lithuania, Tamaret is little known, but has a pretty fascinating biography.
Last night, I was thinking about how disappointed I am in those I know who fear welcoming Syrian refugees to this country, and I happened to read his comments on a sugiyah (section) in the Talmud, Tractate Megilah. He quotes, “Rabbi Yochanan says, ‘Wherever you find God’s greatness, you also find God’s humility.’ ” Tamaret explains that this means that because God’s greatness and wholeness are limitless, God is boundlessly humble and righteous. He then shows how the Talmud brings proof from the Torah, citing Deuteronomy 10:17-18 “For your God is the God of all gods, the Master of all masters,” and then immediately after this, “God makes justice for the orphan and the widow.”
Tamaret then pauses to explain that what this means is that God’s mercy is enormous for all God’s creations and therefore from God’s greatness, comes God’s ability to love and help the pitiable stranger and give him or her what he or she needs to live. Then Tamaret quotes (which is from liturgy and also paraphrases Torah verses), “a God great, powerful, and awe-full” and explains that this means that God treats all equally, and doesn’t discriminate based on who a person is… and does not cleanse a person of the sin if she mistreats those who require assistance.
Immediately following this passage, Tamaret explains that one who wishes to cleave to God must do so – that the source of all holiness and purity- comes from acting with the same mercy and love that God does, by acting – giving shelter, food, and clothing- to those who are in need.
Americans love to talk about how great America is, how powerful, how free. And yet, when it comes time to act, so many of us immediately start dialing it back – we can’t take so many; what if they’re dangerous; not in my state. Tamaret reminds us that true greatness and power give freely. It is from weakness that the refusal to open the hands comes. Greatness is a pool of blessing from which love and assistance are drawn, but also when we take in the stranger, and make a home for the refugee, we are pouring into that pool.
As Jews, and as Americans, we should claim our greatness and our wholeness – perhaps we aren’t yet whole, perhaps we fear too much to be great. But in clinging to God, we can change that, by acting through love for God, and so partaking of that wholeness by opening our hand to the refugees.