We Jews are incredibly proud of our Torah, but we never claim it as history’s first code of law. We do, however, claim that Torah was the first code to grant equal protection under the law to non-citizens: “You shall not oppress the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
We find the roots of this most-frequent commandment, which appears 36 times in the Torah, in the stories about Abraham, the man our tradition considers to be the first Jew. In an effort to help us work with God to create a more just, caring, and compassionate world, God made a covenant with Abraham and all of us who see ourselves as his descendants. In the covenant, God promised to:
- Protect Abraham
- Give him the progeny he desperately craved
- Make him and his seed a permanent people, and after 4,000 years, we are still here. That is permanent, is it not, even by European standards?
- Give us that tiny sliver of land in the Middle East that is modern day Israel.
But a covenant is not a unilateral promise. It is a binding agreement.
In exchange for fulfilling God’s promises, God charged Abraham – and all of us – with the responsibility to:
- Be a blessing
- Walk in God’s ways and live up to God’s teachings
- Fill the world and teach Abraham’s descendants – again, that is all of us – with tzedakah u’mishpat (righteousness and justice).
With this covenant in place, our tradition offers two stories in which Abraham welcomes strangers into his midst.
In the first, he rushes out into the desert to greet three strangers. After bringing them into his tent, he helped them wash and then served them a sumptuous meal. Our Midrashic tradition expands the lesson of this story. We read that Abraham’s tent had openings on all four sides so that he would see all who approached from any direction. Once he spotted anyone approaching, he would rush out into the desert to welcome them in the same way he welcomed the three strangers.
Another legend tells us that as an old man wandered toward Abraham’s tent, our forefather, as was his custom, ran out to greet the stranger. He ushered him into his tent, helped him wash, and served him a delicious meal. Once the man finished dining, though, he took an idol out of his sack and began to worship it. Furious that the man would profane his tent with such blasphemy, Abraham screamed at him in rage, before boldly picking the man up and throwing him, his idol, and his sack out into the desert.
Then Abraham heard the voice of God: “Abraham, Abraham! I have put up with that man and his idol worship for 75 years! Could you not have tolerated him for even a single night?” Ashamed, Abraham ran out into the cold desert night, caught up with the man, apologized profusely, and implored him to return to his tent.
These stories remind me that war, poverty, natural disasters, and other calamities in today’s world have left far too many – like those Abraham welcomed into his tent – without homes, and our Torah does not allow us to pretend they are not our problem.
Germany, where my wife Vickie and I have spent significant time during the last several years, has done more than any other country to welcome refugees from upheaval in other lands, particularly Syria. Learning from the horrible period of Nazi rule, Germany’s efforts have been exemplary, even as her people acknowledge that the presence of people who appear different and have customs unlike their own makes some within the country uneasy.
Nonetheless, our biblical mandate is clear, and I wish the United States and even Israel would follow Germany’s example.
If we truly consider ourselves descendants of Abraham, we must – even if it is not always convenient – go out of our way to bring strangers into our tent as they recover from the ravages of war, displacement, and great loss.
None of the communities I have visited in Germany has illusions that absorbing large measures of refugees will be easy. But the church leaders with whom I interact embrace the challenge eagerly. In Kiel, Neumünster, Bordesholm, and Kaltenkirchen the church communities and their clergy – in particular because of their lingering guilt over the Shoah – feel an obligation to do what they can to help. They are rolling up their sleeves with enthusiasm to do so. Without doubt, though, there are many in Germany concerned that so many refugees will change the complexion of their society. The unanswered question is what will the impact of armed embrace be on the communities in five or 10 years. Only time will tell.
Indeed, Abraham’s example teaches us that we must welcome those in our midst who seek asylum and, to paraphrase the prophet Micah, settle them under new vines and new fig trees, doing our utmost to ensure that none shall make them afraid. (Micah 4:4)