The Human in Every Stranger
Ahmad Akkad has a story.
It is about resilience, fear, hope, and ultimately about people who are willing to make a difference. Ahmad is a 25-year-old Syrian refugee from Damascus. Desperate to escape the violence and war clenching its iron fist around his country, he fled the borders of his known world and began his arduous journey toward a new one.
Ahmad talks about the voyage by sea in an inflatable boat made of rubber, how the boat, incapable of supporting the weight of him and over 50 others, capsized near the shore and sent them all tumbling into the waters off the coast of Turkey; how, outside of Hungary, he stood shivering as the wind and rain chilled his entire being but was refused adequate shelter; but also, how, upon arriving in Munich, he was welcomed with food, drink, and a people willing to empathetically take him in (NPR interview, September 8, 2015). Ahmad is among thousands of refugees seeking this one solace from the rest of the world: the solace of audacious hospitality. But what is audacious hospitality?
The Torah portion Chayei Sarah explores this principle, bringing to light both questions and answers about our current worldly crisis. In the portion, after Sarah’s death Abraham sends his faithful servant Eliezer to find a wife for his son, Yitzhak. As Eliezer states: “The girl to whom I say, ‘Tip your pitcher and let me drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink; and let me water your camels, too’ – let her be the one You have designated for Your servant Isaac; that is how I shall know that You have done a kindness for my master.” At the well in Abraham’s native land, where he has journeyed to search for Yitzhak’s future wife, he encounters Rivka, who not only offers him water, but takes on the task of hydrating all 10 of his camels as well. In doing this, Rivka displays audacious hospitality towards Eliezer; she supplies not only what he requests, but what she knows he needs. Rivka acts on a pure sense of chesed (kindness) when she chooses to see, rather than the stranger, the human in Eliezer.
As Rabbi Rick Jacobs defined it in his December 2013 address at the URJ Biennial in San Diego, “audacious hospitality isn’t just a temporary act of kindness so that people don’t feel left out; it’s an ongoing invitation to be part of a community where we can become all that God wants us to be—and a way to transform ourselves in the process.” At this moment more than ever, the world needs people like Rivka—those who are willing to uphold the principle of welcoming the stranger.
Rabbi Daniel Gropper, who advocated for Obama to let 100,000 refugees into the U.S., described this for a Westchester News 12 article as “Hear the call, be the call.” Our call as a Jewish people is to recognize that we have been the strangers, to appreciate the human person in the strangers, and to show the world’s current strangers that we have not forgotten them.
The refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East is the biggest migration crisis since World War II—when we, the Jewish people, were the strangers. (“Refugee Crisis Response.” Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, September 16, 2015.) Germany and Austria, which have each given refuge to thousands, are at the breaking point and are facing no choice but to close their borders. Right now, when so many need countries around the world to open their doors, they are finding hostile borders instead. This is a worldwide crisis, and we as the people of the United States, as the people of a country with the resources to make a difference, must do our part in creating a home for those who have none.
Of course, helping the refugees is no small task. But the very definition of audacious hospitality is that it is not easy, that it requires a certain sacrifice by one party in order to aid another. When Rivka offers to water Eliezer’s camels, she undertakes quite a major feat; Eliezer had 10 camels, each needing multiple gallons of water, and for each bucket Rivka had to trek back and forth from the well to the trough to bring it to them. As the text describes: “She went down to the spring, filled her pitcher and went up….Quickly she emptied her pitcher in the trough and she again ran to the well to draw water,…” Rivka dedicates herself entirely to this taxing and labor intensive task—but the fact that she does it purely out of kindness, out of empathy, is the true lesson in her actions.
So what should our actions be?
Our actions, perhaps, are first to create a culture in which strangers halfway across the world are not strangers but people, to see the stranger as Rivka saw Eliezer – as a fellow human being. It is Rivka’s compassion in which we must find inspiration today, when so many need us to now open both our hearts and our doors. We were strangers in the land of Egypt, we were strangers in Nazi Germany, but today we are the ones who can make a difference for the stranger in our land and in our country. The reason is not that we are obligated; it is not that we feel sorry for the stranger; it is that we know the stranger’s heavy burden. Audacious hospitality is feeling the weight as our own, and lending our strength to those who are collapsing under it—it is, in the greatest sense, carrying out the tikkun olam of God with our own hands.
Anna Hirsh is a member of Congregation Har HaShem, Boulder, CO, where she is the social action vice president of the temple youth group, Boulder Temple Youth (BTY). A member of NFTY-MV, Anna wrote this d’var Torah, which was selected as the winning entry in the Wendy Blickstein Memorial D’var Torah Competition.