Sermon for Shabbat, October 27, 2018
The Torah portion this week tells about Abraham receiving mysterious visitors. The story is the paradigm for the Jewish way of welcoming strangers. As the story goes, Abraham is sitting outside of his tent in the Terebrinths of Mamre. It is an extremely hot day. A midrash tells us he is recovering from doing his circumcision, so he is in pain, and might be aggravated. It seems a weird thing to discuss, but it matters a great deal in the telling of this story. With this bizarre addition, the midrash connects two story points. It bridges Abraham’s surgical entry into a covenant with God with the events that happen next. Knowing that he is in pain, and irritable makes what happens next all the more remarkable. He sees men approaching. Strangers. And despite the heat of the day, despite his physical limitation, and despite the fact that he has no idea who these men are, he rises to greet them. And the language is very specific. It tells us Vayarotz likratam. He RUNS to greet them. The rabbis describe the fact that he runs as a sign of Zerizut. That is enthusiasm to perform a mitzvah. He is enthusiastic about welcoming the strangers to his land. At no point does Abraham question why they are there or impugn their motive. All he does is see three men, strangers, weary travelers, and he welcomes them with open arms. He offers them food and a place to rest. He starts with kindness and compassion as he anticipates their needs, and willingly gives of himself to provide for them.
For his kindness, Abraham is rewarded with a blessing and the promise of a bright future.
Now let us retell this story, not in the time of the Torah, but for the month of October 2018. Abraham sits outside of his tent in the heat of the day. He sees three men coming. He gets up and runs, but instead of running to the visitors, he runs through the town shouting that a caravan of foreigners is coming. Though the strangers are actually small in number, the townspeople have not yet seen them with their own eyes. From Abraham’s warning, they imagine a wild hoard of men, columns of armed warriors. They are murderers and thieves. They are bent on destroying their precious land in the Terebinths of Mamre. Whatsmore they are providing haven for our enemies. Abraham’s neighbors are filled with fear. One wise neighbor knows enough to be skeptical. “What proof do you have?” he asks. And Abraham says, “I don’t have proof. But I have heard about angry mobs like this before. They want to cross our border. Take our jobs. Steal our food. Run our government. Why else would a bunch of strangers come here?”
The wise neighbor wonders if this is true, but speaks no more. All the people of the land have been worked into a frenzy. The once wise neighbor is fearful to go against the grain, so he falls in line. The people grab their weapons, and they rush to the border with Abraham to make sure not one of those strangers may enter their land.
When they get to the border, what do they discover. Three men, weary travelers, requiring nothing more than a place to escape the heat and to be refreshed.
Unfortunately, rather than welcome them with kindness, they have welcomed them with disdain and violence.
And the result of this behavior? It is hard to say since it is mostly made up. This second scenario is not in the Torah. The ending is left to our imaginations. Suffice it to say, nothing good can come from the fear mongering and isolationism powered by a belligerent attitude toward the stranger. At best the strangers will see they are not welcome and keep on walking. At worst, there will be violence, a massacre of homeless nomads under the swords of an angry mob. Abraham and the people of the land never bothered to get the truth, and they missed the opportunity to do a mitzvah, to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, and even possible to save some lives.
I prefer the actual Torah story of Abraham and the strangers. I like the content, and I like the ending. The second version of the story, the one I made up, is not in the Torah, but the story could have easily gone that way. There was a moment of decision. The whole episode turned on the way Abraham reacted at the sight of strangers approaching. Rather than run from them in fear, he ran to them with love.
And you probably know where this is going. Right now, more than a thousand miles away, there is a now infamous caravan winding their way through Mexico, headed toward the American border. Current estimates say there are seven thousand people, coming from some of the poorest countries in Central America. They have left countries terrorized by violence and political instability. They have left whatever they had behind and travelled with next to nothing, men, women, children together, desperately looking for a place to build their futures. Now, it is obviously not possible to bring in every person and harbor them here. That is beyond the pale of discussion. In all likelihood, most of the people in that caravan know that their chances are a bit like playing the lottery. Yet they know, their chances of survival are greatly improved when the reach our border over staying home subject to the whims of the crime syndicates and corrupt political bodies. I am not advocating simply opening our gates and letting everyone settle here. But, what I do believe, is that we can look to the story of Abraham for guidance in how to respond to this caravan of people.
They are poor. They are unarmed. They are desperate. Never before has a mighty nation like ours been so afraid of a group of unarmed, poor people. What they want is to apply for asylum, escaping the dangers of their home countries to which they cannot return. They want to work. To raise families. To live in stability with functional law enforcement. They want to participate in a democracy. Basically, they want to enjoy the very things we love about this country. We see them coming, and as a nation, we ought to be running to them, eager to help, to console, to support. But instead, we are running the other way, sounding the alarm, making up lies, stoking fear in a cynical ploy to gain political points. It has been said that they are going to enter our country illegally, though there is absolutely no way to measure their intent, nor can such a mass of people cross our border unnoticed. It has been said that the caravan is full of criminals, but there is nothing to confirm that. It has been said that they are coming as part of a diabolical ploy to vote illegally in our elections, as if it were even possible. It has also been said that dangerous middle easterners are mixed in with the caravan and are intent on slipping into our country to commit terrorist acts. The absurdity of this statement is astounding. He is playing on people’s fears of terrorism and an assumption that Hondurans and Mexicans would not know the difference between themselves and members of ISIS. Just because many of our fellow Americans see the world as being either white or everything else, does not mean that people of color cannot tell the difference. It smacks of racism. At best, it is utter naivete. As a nation, we should know to disregard such blatantly false statements. But what is our national response? We are sending a thousand army troops to join the 2,000 national guardsmen who are already on the ground. Meanwhile, we are working on a plan to prevent members of the caravan from even applying for asylum at our border.
That is a lot of soldiers being sent to confront a group of unarmed, poor people. Greeting people with guns in such a manner, after building up so much fear, the potential horrors of the possible outcomes are limitless. Such a military presence calls to mind the dramatic principle of Chekov’s gun. That is to say, when, a gun is introduced into a scene, it has to go off. Placing an army in front of a group of people whom we are told we are supposed to fear, that is playing with fire. If something, God forbid, happens, our nation could have a lot of innocent blood on its hands. We cannot allow this to happen.
So what might happen if instead, we treated the caravan the way Abraham treated the mysterious travelers. If we respond humanely, with a bit of food and water rather than guns and intimidation, we might help to sustain them for a short period of time. We also might be able to save lives by granting legitimate requests for long-term asylum. We might, in the end, gain some new hard-working citizens who contribute to our economy. We might gain new friends as we continue to expand the diversity of our country, enriching the melting pot that has made our country great for so many generations. Like Abraham, we might be rewarded by our visitors with a better future. Then again, maybe nothing great will become of it. Maybe none of them will get to stay. But we will always know that, when given the opportunity to do a mitzvah, to show compassion, we took it, running to the aid of strangers. Whether they stay forever or not, we can and must affirm the dignity of all people. We can also, like Abraham, show zerizut, enthusiasm for running to our fellow man, rather than running from them. We as a nation are reaching a moment of decision—between a campaign of hospitality and love or a campaign of fear and intimidation.
Let us hope we make the one which ensures blessings and life for us and for all.