Strangers in a Strange Land

by rabbilimmer

Yom Kippur 5775

Chicago Sinai Congregation


In the summer of 1903, Rabbi Emil Gustav Hirsch, asked to address a community who had heard of him but never heard from him, opened his remarks with a request, “I should feel constrained, by way of introduction, to ask at your hand the indulgence due ‘a stranger in a strange land’.”[1]  Explaining his unease in the East as a rabbi from the West, Rabbi Hirsch continued to caution his crowd, knowing assertions he serenely stated at Sinai sometimes aroused violent dissent when he traveled to new places.  He concluded his commencement with the admission, “Perhaps it will be impossible for me to escape this fate today, as I avail myself of the generous hospitality of this platform to phrase a few suggestions that seem vital to me.”

This new rabbi of Chicago Sinai Congregation has moved from that East to this Mid-West, yet despite the opposite direction of my movement I feel a certain kinship with my predecessor in this pulpit.  To begin with, we are just coming to know each other.  I am certain that many members of my former congregation, where I spent fourteen years, could finish my sentences, let alone my sermons; here in Chicago I am still the shiny new object, the unknown quantum whose obligation it is to make myself known.  Like Rabbi Hirsch, I can only guess how my words will be received in these moments when I avail myself of a most generous hospitality on your part to phrase a few suggestions that seem vital to me.

Today, I invoke the biblical image of a stranger in a strange land.  In contrast to Rabbi Hirsch, this New Yorker has felt most at home these past three months in Chicago: the warm welcome so many of you have given me and my family, combined with the beauty and potential of this great city, have truly helped us feel most at home.  When I think today of the phrase “a stranger in a strange land”, I do so not as one recently relocated, but rather as a rabbi, a student of our Jewish tradition, one who takes the lessons of our heritage to heart.  In my mind, there is no occupation more central for us to consider—on this holiest of days or on any day—than our tradition’s understanding of, empathy for, and identification with the stranger in a strange land.

We were strangers from the very beginning.  Abraham and Sarah journeyed to an unknown land; at his most vulnerable moments, Abraham felt himself as a stranger, a sojourner: in Hebrew, a Ger.[2]  Abraham’s children wandered as strangers amongst the peoples of Canaan; only his great-grandson Joseph found a secure place for himself: that was in Egypt.  400 years later, Joseph’s descendants found no such secure footing: Pharaoh enslaved our ancestors, embittered their servitude through brutal cruelty.  Moses, the Israelite raised as a stranger in Pharaoh’s palace, grew into the hero who ended oppression, led us to liberation.  Standing with emancipated Israel at Sinai, Moses formed our freedom with instructions, injunctions, and command.  First and foremost amongst these is: You shall not wrong or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.[3]  Soonafter Moses again charges: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.[4]  Before Deuteronomy ends, concluding the five Books of Moses, we hear the command not to oppress the stranger a total of 36 times.[5]  It is, by a tremendous order of magnitude, the most repeated commandment in our tradition.

Our sensitivity to the stranger is central to Judaism.  Let alone the remarkable repetition reminding us to respect strangers, our entire movement from slavery to redemption is the hallmark of our Jewish experience.  Every Passover we internalize the bitterness of oppression not only to savor sweet freedom, but also to remember the embittered existence of so many suffering in servitude.  We figuratively eat cement, dip our food in tears, and choke on the fumes of painful persecution in order—literally—to put the taste of oppression in our mouths.  We even end our Seder saying, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” because we are aware that so many people in our world are so regrettably remote from any Promised Land.  Our festival of freedom teaches we should not consider ourselves normal, naturalized citizens of a certain country, but see ourselves as strangers in a strange land.

Moses, even before emancipation—before the miracle of liberation could be contemplated—internalized this sympathy with strangers in a compelling manner.  We recall that Moses, feeling alienation in Egypt, killed a taskmaster who beat an Israelite.  When he learned his crime was discovered, Moses fled to Midian, a desert oasis.  There he found shelter, along with a wife.  Soonafter, a son was born, along with the image Rabbi Hirsch invoked over a century ago when speaking in the alien East: [Moses’ had] a son, and he named him Gershom, for he said, “I have been a stranger in a strange land”.[6]  The name itself is a pun: Ger-Sham is Hebrew for “I was a stranger there”; Moses effectively named his son for the formative experience in his life: not fitting in any place he found himself.  Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace with all the privileges of monarchy, despite the fact that same monarchy was oppressing the people to whom he truly belonged.  Escaping Egypt, Moses was an outsider among his wife and new family in Midian.  His entire existence was expressed in his son’s name: Ger-Sham, Gershom, I was a stranger in a strange land.

Sensitivity to the stranger is central to our Jewish experience.  Because we are commanded to sympathize with strangers, we must see ourselves as strangers in a strange land.  However, that sympathy is not meant to be internal, to redound only to the realm of feelings and emotions.  We are charged not only to feel sympathy, but also not to oppress, not to wrong, not to subjugate the rights of the stranger amongst us.  We are taught time and time again to establish the same law, the same rule, the same standard, for strangers and citizens.  Our feelings are meaningless if they do not translate into action; our broad consideration for humanity in general must translate to how we interact with individual men and women, individual strangers, who come before us.[7]  But that is not so easy.  It is one thing to know that, as Jews, we are responsible for the strangers in our midst, we are to feel their pain, we are not to oppress them because we were once strangers ourselves.  It is an entirely other matter, however, to translate that sensitivity, that moral sensibility, into action.

This Yom Kippur, this great Sabbath when we are focused on our potential for the coming year, I want to avail myself of the hospitality of this platform to share a few suggestions that seem vital to me as to how we can live up to our Jewish expectation of sympathy for the stranger.  While this motif from Exodus will be our guide, our theme has many variations, multiple meanings that alter the way we lead our lives in the coming year.  These diverse understandings of being a stranger in a strange land come to us from the teaching of three great Torah commentators: Umberto Cassuto, Ovadiah Sforno, and Rabbi Samuel ben Meir.[8]  Each of these sages’ understanding of the stranger in a strange land informs how all of us, in this coming year, can fulfill our powerful injunction to be sensitive to the stranger, to understand their plight, to remediate their alienation.

[Moses] named him Gershom“I was a stranger there”for he said, “I have been a stranger in a strange land”.  Moses is clear about his child’s nomenclature.  Umberto Cassuto, Chief Rabbi of Florence in the early 20th Century, thinks Moses is mistaken.  “We must not regard [the Torah’s text] as proper etymology,” he explains.  Cassuto asserts that the name Gershom is derived from the verb garish [‘drive away’, ‘banish’], and not from ger [‘stranger’.][9]  According to Cassuto, Gershom got his name not because Moses was a stranger in a foreign land, but because he was banished, driven away to an alien location.  His disagreement with the seemingly straightforward sense of Scripture aside, Cassuto captures something essential about Moses: he was a refugee.  He stood up against oppression in Egypt, and as result, fled across the border to Midian.  Moses sought sanctuary from the ruler who forced his parents to hide him in the shadows, from the Pharaoh who caused him to be cast in the rushing river Nile.

Moses was a refugee.  He came from a long line of immigrants.  We, Moses’ descendants, have assumed the moniker of “The Wandering People”; our history is replete with expulsion and exile.[10]  We have been a migrant people, constantly seeking sanctuary, refugees scattered across the face of the world: from the time of Moses we know what it means to be strangers in strange lands.  But here—in America generally and Chicago in particular—even this New York rabbi doesn’t feel like a stranger.  Sitting in this sanctuary on our Sabbath of Sabbaths are those who can trace their lineage through five generations of Chicago Sinai Congregation, let alone America. At this historical moment, we are not refugees; few of us feel like immigrants.  We are the settled.  That is why—given the lessons we draw from our history—it is our obligation as settled, naturalized Americans, to alleviate the suffering of the immigrants in our midst.  Over 11 million individuals are undocumented in America; these people—who build our society by driving our taxis, harvesting our food, maintaining our economy, and educating their children for our shared future—are forced to live a life in the shadows.  Nearly 63,000 children—fleeing oppression, forced prostitution and death in Central America—sought refuge this summer at our Southern border.[11]  Yet we have a Congress that refuses even to discuss Comprehensive Immigration Reform already enacted by the Senate, we have a department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that is racially profiling populations, and we have a President of the United States who has sent so many people back to their unwelcoming home he has been called the “Deporter-in-Chief”.[12]

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.  We live in a country whose government—arguably actively, profoundly passively—oppresses the stranger.  How are we Jews to react?  I would argue we need multiple approaches.  First and foremost, I believe we need—each of us—to spend time with the immigrant community so they know they are not alone, so they know we welcome them.  Some of us can do this by joining the good work of coalitions like the Illinois Campaign to Protect Children and Families, other might offer support or counsel through settlement homes like Erie Neighborhood House; I met a man last month who asks every taxi driver where they are from, listens to their story, and then thanks them for coming to build a better America.  On an individual basis, there is so much we can do to alleviate the suffering of the undocumented and afraid.  Nationally, I believe we must continue to push our House of Representatives to implement Immigration Reform: we need constantly and consistently to keep this issue before our elected officials, especially so they hear the concern for the undocumented and our refugees coming from a stable, settled community such as ours.  We need to remind our representatives in Washington, D.C., that Immigration Reform is not an issue for asylum seekers or Spanish speakers alone; we Jews understand it is our religious duty to cause our country to see sensitivity to the stranger and the refugee as our American obligation.

Umberto Cassuto fled Florence as fascism took root; perhaps his personal experience led him to see strangers in a strange land as refugees.  Obadiah Sforno led a different kind of life.  He, too, was an Italian Rabbi; he lived, however, in the 15th Century, a time of relative peace for our people in his country.  Sforno never needed to leave home, but gained such a scholarly reputation that he travelled throughout the Italian Peninsula his entire career.  Perhaps that is why he offers a different twist on a stranger in a strange land: Sforno teaches that this epithet is about being in a new place, a land not of one’s birth and upbringing.[13]  Born in Cesena, moving from Rome to Bologna and beyond, Sforno was never an outcast, often an outsider.  Here your new rabbi feels kinship.  For I do not sense Chicago is a strange land at all; however, I was not born, educated, or raised in this city of broad shoulders.  Many times this summer I’ve been told, “It’s so refreshing you are bringing an outsider’s eye to this city.”  I understand the sentiment: when we settle in one city for so long, we become so accustomed to its practices we often overlook its beauty, fail to see its faults.

Fulfilling our obligation to see ourselves as strangers in a strange land, Sforno insists, involves seeing a place with an outsider’s eye.  It is not that we feel alien, but that we make ourselves examine our home from a new perspective.  This point of view is important.  In Chicago, we can become so accustomed to victims of gun violence dying on our streets that these very human beings gunned down in our city seem only sobering statistics.  We shop at the new Target, Whole Foods, or any superstore in the retail corridor south of North Avenue and are thankful that the blight of Cabrini Green was eradicated; looking at the new homes and the obvious gentrification, do we wonder where those who lived in that neighborhood now find a home?  To what new land were they banished?  We are inured to unfilled potholes, failing public schools, shady tax increment finance districts,[14] and more urban ailments than we could enumerate: do we throw up our hands in frustration?  Or worse, do we become so habituated to the happenings here that our hearts get hardened, our eyes even fail to see the problems that beset us?  Such a failure of awareness—either because we intentionally don’t want to know bad news or have become so used to hearing it we are immune to it—such a failure of awareness to real problems, Sforno reminds us, is a failure to sympathize with the stranger.   We cannot fulfill our religious obligation unless we are willing to see society not through our own tired eyes, but with the unique outlook of an outsider.

Sforno teaches we can experience the feelings of the stranger if we examine our everyday experience from a new perspective, with outsider’s eyes.  Cassuto instructs us to remember our refugee past, when we were strangers in so many strange lands.  One additional scholar suggests there is another important aspect to our religious sensitivity.  Rabbi Samuel ben Meir was born in Troyes in 1085, and lived there to the day of his death.  You see, Samuel was the grandson of Rashi, the great Talmudist of Troyes, head of the Yeshiva, Chief Magistrate of the Court, already in his lifetime understood to be the single most important teacher of Jewish tradition.  Not surprisingly, Samuel, Rashi’s grandson, became one of our legendary interpreters of Torah; his brothers likewise are renowned for their great Talmudic commentaries.[15]  Rabbi Samuel ben Meir was born into an elite inner circle of Jewish life, and remained part of that proverbial nobility to the end of his days.

Never really leaving home, always welcomed and treated like royalty, it is not surprising that Rabbi Samuel understands being a stranger in a strange land differently from the exiled Cassuto or the roving Sforno.  Samuel’s exegesis of Exodus is subtle, nuanced: he explains that the “strange land” of a stranger in a strange land implies a location distant, a territory remote.  Cassuto charges us to see stranger as refugee; Sforno focuses on the strangeness, the new-ness, even of our own territory.  Rabbi Samuel examines the land itself: it is foreign, alien.  “Distant” is the word he uses.  When he teaches that Moses felt a stranger in a distant land, he captures how remote Moses felt from family, from friends, from those who knew him: Moses was a lonely stranger in a land where he felt alienated from others.

How often we ourselves are in Moses’ position.  And I am not literally limiting myself to people like me who move to new cities away from so many friends and family.  We all know what it’s like to walk into a room where everyone else seems an insider; we sense there is an elite crowd into which we were not born and do not feel welcome.  We can be made to feel remote even within a few feet of our own doorsteps: clannishness, cliquishness, can cause us to feel as isolated as Moses was in the lonely desert.  Rabbi Samuel is reminding us that people from our own town, who know our language, who look like us, who are members of our own clubs—synagogues, even—sometimes are made to feel isolated and apart.  Amazingly, for a man born into the inner circle in which he lived his entire life, Rabbi Samuel reminds us that it is our responsibility—especially if others see us as “on the inside”—to make sure that we don’t cause others to feel on the outside, peripheral to our friendships or community.

I have only been in Chicago for three months, but I know that there are those who unfortunately feel like outsiders even at our beloved Chicago Sinai Congregation.  I was fortunate, like Rabbi Samuel, to join this sacred community as an obvious insider; I have felt so graced to receive such a warm welcome and kind attention from so many during this first season together.  But I am also acutely aware—as plenty come to meet me every Shabbat—that there are others in our lobby, our sanctuary and our social hall, to whom no one says hello.  In meaningful conversations, I have heard from many of you that—in addition to receiving so much from Sinai that nourishes your souls—you are looking for a higher level of community, of connection with others, of human relationships to be formed in this house of the Divine.  What we must change, together as a congregation, is making sure that our House of Prayer for All Peoples is also a House of Friendship for Any who Enter.  It was not so long ago, when people physically lived distant from our temple, that we transcended the bounds of our building to create the Hi-Rise Fellowship.[16]  If anyone today is made to feel remote from the center of our congregation, we need to transcend the limitations of our favorite friends and regular crowd to build a different kind of Sinai Fellowship.  Yes, this will likely include important details, like continuing our social events from the summer and wearing name tags so it’s easier to build bonds with others.  However, fundamentally, to create a real sense of Sinai Fellowship, programs and implements only go so far: Fellowship will only come to Sinai if each of us, every one, makes sure to welcome, to honor, to recognize the humanity of others every time we enter our sacred halls.  That obligation falls on our broad shoulders each and every time we enter the sacred halls of Chicago Sinai Congregation.

Over a century ago, Rabbi Hirsch described what we rabbis do: avail ourselves of your hospitality to make a few suggestions that seem vital to us.  It is of vital importance to me, your new rabbi, that we welcome this coming year by showing deepest of sympathies to all strangers in a strange land.  While most of those efforts will lead us to act outside Sinai’s doors, we must begin with our obligation to end the alienation and isolation far too many feel within our synagogue walls.  Furthermore, we need to face serious truths about the city of Chicago if we want, together, to fix rampant failures in public education, gun violence, and patronage politics.  Finally, our tradition calls us to repair more than our own characters, congregations or cities: there is a broken world out there to which we are responsible as well.  Strangers, immigrants and refugees are piling up on our borders or are forced to live undocumented in the shadows of our skyscrapers. Even before Moses named his son a stranger in a strange land, we Jews have known the plight of the stranger. Ever since, we have been commanded to work for a world where no stranger is oppressed, where no alien is forced to feel like an outsider.  I am not so naïve as to think that 5775 will be the year in which everyone around the world will sing kumbayah, become friends living in a peaceful land; I am nonetheless optimistic that together we can make our congregation, our city, and our country less strange and less oppressive, more warm and more welcoming, in the coming year.

May it be our will.

[1] Emil Gustav Hirsch, “Judaism and the Higher Criticism,” delivered July 1, 1903, Atlantic City, NJ, to the Jewish Chatauqua Assembly.  Reprinted in My Religion, p. 223.  In the remainder of the above paragraph, I edit his words. The full text is as follows:

I should feel constrained, by way of introduction, to ask at your hand the indulgence due “a stranger in a strange land.”  I use the phrase advisedly.  There is something in the atmosphere of the East which puts us from the West on guard.  I myself have been taught by previous experience that assertions which in my home surroundings cause not as much as the slightest ripple in the placid surface of the current of thought, have had the effect to arouse violent dissent and were put under the ban as heterodox and revolutionary.  Perhaps it will be impossible for me to escape this fate today, as I avail myself of the generous hospitality of this platform to phrase a few suggestions that seem vital to me.

[2] See Genesis 24, following Sarah’s death, and Abraham’s self-reference during his dialogue with Ephron the Hittite.

[3] Exodus 22:20.

[4] Exodus 23:9.

[5] This is according to our Sages of Blessed Memory, who noted that the Torah repeats this commandment 36 times [or perhaps 46!] during their discussion in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Baba Metsia 59b.  There, the 36 citations are not listed, which made me skeptical about the actual number being accurate.  However, having done a database search of the term “Ger/Stranger” in the Bible, I amazingly came up with precisely that number of citations that speak of our obligation to the stranger.  Although these commands are not exclusively found in the Five Books of Moses, this skeptic is nonetheless surprised that the number totaled the legendary 36.  Here is my list:

Exodus 12:49, 22:20, 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 19:33, 19:34, 23:22, 24:22, 25:35, 25:47; Numbers 9:14, 14:14, 14:15, 14:29, 25:14; Deuteronomy 1:15, 10:18, 10:19, 24:14, 24:17, 24:19, 24:20, 24:21, 26:12, 26:13, 27:19, 29:10, 31:12; Isaiah 14:1; Jeremiah 7:6, 2:3; Ezekiel 22:7, 22:29; Zecheriah 7:10; Malachi 3:5; Pslam 146:9.  Admittedly, there are a few of these that are less cohortative than others, or simply define the ger as equal to the citizen.  But they are all pretty explicit as to our consideration for the stranger.

[6] Exodus 2:22.

[7] Here I am informed and moved by the words of Jane Addams, good friend and partner of Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch.  She wrote:

Those who believe that Justice is but a poetical longing within us, the enthusiast who thinks it will come in the form of the millennium, those who see it established by the strong arm of the hero, are not those who have comprehended the vast truths of life.  The actual Justice must come by trained intelligence, by broadened sympathies toward the individual man or woman who crosses our path; one item added to another is the only method by which to build up a conception lofty enough to be of use in the world.

Jane Addams, 20 Years at Hull House, p. 34.

[8] Often known by his acronym, Rashbam.  And Ovadiah Sforno is also known by his full name, Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno.

[9] Umberto Cassuto, Commentary on Exodus, to Exodus 2:22.

[10] According to historian Salo Baron, this epithet was first used in the early years of Christianity.  Extant manuscripts have shown that as early as the time of Tertullian, some Christian proponents were likening the Jewish people to a “new Cain”, asserting that they would be “fugitives and wanderers (upon) the earth”.  See Salo Wittmayer Baron, Social and Religious History of the Jews, Vol. 6.

[11] For a helpful Q&A about this crisis, see

[12]  Even a cursory web search of “racial profiling by ICE” will turn up cases across the nation; I became intimately familiar with this process while working to stave off the deportation of Yestel Velasquez, who was detained when ICE raided a civil rights meeting held in a Latino neighborhood of New Orleans.

By April, 2014, President Obama oversaw over 2 millions deportations.  It was as he passed this number that the National Council of La Raza declared him the “Deporter-in-Chief”.  See

[13] Literally, his comment is “I am a stranger in this land that is not the place of my birth.” Sforno, Commentary to the Torah, to Exodus 2:22.

[14] To understand precisely how shady, see this excellent essay by Ben Joravsky:

[15] Specifically, Rabbi Samuel was the older brother of the a specific category of Talmudic teachers known as the Tosafists: Rabbi Isaac ben Meir (the “Rivam”) and Jacon ben Meir (“Rabbeinu Tam”).

[16] The Hi-Rise Fellowship consisted of Rabbis Karff and Kranz leading services (and providing other programs) outside of Sinai’s Hyde Park home, most notably in the towering condominium buildings that lent their name to the project.  See Tobais Brinkmann, Sundays at Simai, p. 294.