Those who look to the Hebrew Bible for inspiration, guidance, and meaning in their life may be surprised to learn that the most repeated commandment in the Torah is to welcome the stranger. Or, more specifically, as in Exodus 23:9, we are compelled, “Also you shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
There we were, wandering in the wilderness, reminded that we had been enslaved and kept out of our Promised Land. God compels us as a nation of Strangers to recognize and welcome the stranger—because we know how they feel, we know how they hurt, and we know what it does to a person.
God realized that the slave mentality would not allow for the Israelites to become “un-strangered.” The generation of strangers in the wilderness needed to die off before the Israelites could truly enter the Promised Land, appreciating it for all that it is, bumps and bruises and milk and honey.
We are not of the slave generation today. But more compelling is that Israel relies on the strangers around the world to experience all that she offers as a beacon of hope and light and room for growth. We need elected republicans and elected democrats and civilians alike, all to be welcomed as strangers into the Holy Land.
At the end of the trip, where they visit is irrelevant. What they planned to do while there is inconsequential. They will speak with Israelis in the hotel lobby, Palestinians at the restaurant, the flavor and feeling of Israel will hopefully reach their hearts through the simple osmosis that is breathing the air of Jerusalem.
100 years before the Six Day War, American “prophet” Mark Twain traveled across Israel and offered an unremarkable account of the Holy Land. The osmosis wasn’t instantaneous for him. It took several years before he wrote his short essay “Concerning the Jews.” Therein, Mark Twain asked the profound question: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”
The secret is that though we have rarely been welcomed, we always do the welcoming. Toward the end of her life, Emma Lazarus, whose legacy and work is sadly being reinterpreted and debated in the press today, called upon her own Jewish moral imperatives, and inspired us all to “lift [our] lamp beside the golden door.”
These women are United States Congresswomen — implicit representatives of friends of Israel, the home of the second largest Jewish population in the world. And though these congresswomen have made comments in the past – and recently – full of and inciting anger and hate explicitly toward Israel and implicitly toward the Jewish people, these women are not strangers! Provocateurs? Yes. But that is irrelevant to whether they should be permitted to enter the State of Israel. They are United States Congresswomen. How much the more so should we welcome them! It is uncanny that this is even happening.
Certainly these glorious United States of America, which has indeed served as a place of welcome for the Jewish people in different generations, should have, at least, her elected leaders welcomed in return.
Else, I fear, the tide will begin to turn, and, dare I say, even God above may not be able to ensure our immortality.
Rabbi Avi Olitzky is a senior rabbi of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, one of the largest synagogues in Rep. Omar’s district.