The American poet T.S. Eliot wrote:
And now you live dispersed on ribbon roads,
And no man knows or cares who is his neighbor
Unless his neighbor makes too much disturbance,
But all dash to and fro in motor cars,
Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere…
Much to cast down, much to build, much to restore;…
I have given you power of choice, and you only alternate
Between futile speculation and unconsidered action…
And the wind shall say: “Here were decent godless people:
Their only monument the asphalt road
And a thousand lost golf balls.”…
When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
To make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
(T. S. Eliot, “Choruses from the Rock”)
We enter Parashat B’har with a backdrop of relationship between humanity and divinity. God commands additional rhythms of time — the sh’mitah (sabbatical) year serves as a Sabbath for the Land and a remittance of debts every seven years (Lev. 25:1-6; Deut. 15:1-9), and the Yovel (Jubilee) year serves as a semicentennial resetting of property rights, servitude, and economic imbalances. We are repeatedly reminded that as other temporal markers mirror divinity (Shabbat and various holidays), the same is so across longer spans of time. These economic and agricultural resets offer the recognition that the terrestrial realm ultimately is God’s, while the temporal realm gifts us with eternal rhythms of relationship. In limiting our sense of permanency in our spaces and places, we are invited to feel ourselves in tandem with God in time.
Nested within these verses, we encounter the line: “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23). The Hebrew phrase, gerim v’toshavim, “strangers resident [with Me],” which occurs in many places in the Torah, refers not only to the Children of Israel as “resident strangers,” but also to God, a resident stranger among Israel. The plain meaning of this verse simply underscores the sense that we rent and God owns; no matter our status or privilege, at best we are all quasi-outsiders in place.
For Rabbi Moshe Chaim Efraim, however, this initial reading misses an essential qualifier. The final word, imadi, which appears in the NJPS translation as “with Me,” may be better understood as “along with Me.” That is, God is a resident stranger, and the observance of the Jubilee year is a reminder that we, too, are resident strangers. In this radical reading, Efraim notes the existential loneliness of God as mirroring our own:
“ ... for whomever is a stranger has no people with whom to cleave and to draw near and to tell of his experiences. And for anyone who’s heart has no friend … when he sees a fellow stranger [and feel resonant as fellow outsiders] then he may recount with this person his experiences” (Degel Machaneh Efraim, Behar 1, trans., Rabbi Ben Spratt).
God exists alone and apart, with neither peer nor friend, without one to listen and bear witness. In being commanded to disrupt our own sense of belonging, we are invited to embrace a similar state of being, and as fellow strangers, we may open ourselves better to being God’s companions.
Drawing this point out further, Efraim suggests that in our own comfort and belonging, we inadvertently abandon the outsider. In fixed places and spaces, we forget our own position as the outsider. Despite innumerable reminders to retain our awareness of a narrative of being strangers, and therefore be attuned to the strangers in our midst, here we are given a further impetus — without our own sense of solitude, we leave God alone and abandoned as well.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel used this explanation in framing his understanding of mitzvah and the prevention of sin: “The destiny of man is to be a partner of God and a mitzvah is an act in which man is present, an act of participation; while sin is an act in which God is alone; an act of alienation” (Between God and Man (NY: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997), p. 80). Heschel sees commandment as a pathway for connection; sin as an act of abandonment. (6:14)
Abandonment: Nothing saps the soul, nothing shatters the spirit like that profound sense of disconnection. It is the sense that one’s life is an island, that one’s thoughts, feelings, and presence go unnoticed, unseen, unappreciated. Loneliness can touch a person of any age, at any point. Whether single or married, divorced or dating, with 2,000 Facebook friends or none, one can be surrounded by others — can interact with hundreds of fellow souls in a single day — and still go to sleep at night feeling utterly alone in the world. As T.S. Eliot wrote, "Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing" (Introduction to Dante’s Inferno).
Think of these: The child who sits by himself in the school cafeteria. The teen who is bullied for being different. The next-door neighbor who lost her job, and with it, a sense of connection to the world. The friend going through a painful divorce. The person who feels unseen and unknown in his 20-year marriage. Those in our community who bury a parent, who lose a spouse, who lose a child. We are people rarely seen, our loneliness, our abandonment, quickly forgotten.
Like so many of us, God too sits alone, searching for us in the wilderness of the world. In places of comfort, we forget our charge to embrace the outsider; in spaces of permanency, we forget the marginalized. If the primary purpose of mitzvot is connection, then it may be the most disruptive obligations, the burdens that expand perspective beyond comfort, that are most needed.
May we join God as resident strangers of this world, commanded to connect. And may we, in the rhythms of relationship, disrupt ourselves enough to see that God dwells not in the fortresses of steel and glass, but in the margins — in the heart of the stranger.
Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior associate rabbi of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY. His passion continues to be building community beyond existent walls and boundaries and, in partnership with many others, has sparked Shireinu, Tribe, New Day Fellowship, and Minyan.