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Strangers: Welcoming the Danger


As my body acclimates to the new demands I'm putting on her (mostly), my biggest challenge has been emotional. As an introvert, especially when tired, how do I open my heart and ego enough to approach all of the "strangers" I pass by, to start new conversations over and over again, and last but not least - to ask for a place to stay? As an American, embroiled in our culture of fear, how do I reprogram myself on a deep enough level? As a human being, with all of the regular insecurities and prejudices, how I risk and venture out to talk with people who look different than me, sound different than me, think different than me, and live different than me?

In the midst of the national discussion about immigrants who are fleeing to the U.S. through our Mexican border, with and without following the legal procedures, what might we all learn about how we related to "strangers"? I'm afraid (pun intended) that you can't legislate people out of their fear of the unknown...

We Jews are often proud of the overabundance of commandments who enjoin us to have empathy and open up our hands! We cite, “You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9). In Leviticus 19:33 we find, “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. In Leviticus 19:34, we go further, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” The prophet Zekhariah declares “Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the stranger or the poor, and do not plot evil in your hearts against one another.” (7:10). In Jeremiah 7:6-7, we read “If you do not oppress the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place... then I will cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers forever and ever.”

However, I do not think you cannot legislate people out of fear of strangers, whether by religious fiat or national law. I don't have statistics in front of me, but I imagine that Jews are split on our immigration policy and overall, we are no more likely to welcome strangers. We all have our fears, especially when our history or present is filled with danger.

Even when we step beyond those fears, it is much easier to demand a change (or a lack of change) to government policy to welcome strangers, than it is to welcome strangers personally, in one's day to day life. The latter, an embodied, daily practice, of welcoming is the much bigger and more necessary challenge.

How many of us make the effort to talk to strangers (even within relatively safe circumstances) on a daily basis? How often do you? Especially if you're feeling upset by the current changes in immigration policy - I wonder how much we could all change the world, if we all started welcoming strangers in our daily lives: Talking to the person standing in line at the supermarket, to that one person at work we always avoid, to people we pass on the street, and especially the ones who look, talk, or think, differently?

Of course we will need these skills of talking with our neighbors and all of our "strangers" more and more in a Climate Changed world where droughts contribute to more geopolitical instability like they have in Syria and therefore cause more refugees, and where a warmer climate contributes to a wider spread of diseases like Lyme and Zika.