It’s been said that the hardest thing in life is to know which bridge to cross and which to burn. Some things are better abandoned – a failed business venture, a toxic relationship – and some things are worth persisting at despite the fear and difficulties. One of the bridges worth crossing is that to the stranger in need.
The founding father and mother of Judaism, Abraham and Sarah, were distinguished by their capacity to build and cross bridges. They did not shrink from the challenge of reaching out across the abyss to connect to the stranger. They did not shirk when God demanded they leave home, familiarity and comfort to set off towards an unknown land. It may be precisely that they were called on to leave their comfort zones and became foreigners that they would always understand the heart of the stranger. They became aliens from their own birthplaces, they burnt the bridges to the pagan cultures in which they had been raised. They became Hebrew עברים, those who crossed over to the other side. But if they burnt bridges, they also built bridges, became pilgrims of the human soul, their own and others. The “fashioned souls in Haran,” they extended generous home hospitality to idolaters and probably travelling salesmen.
They became champions of חסד, chessed, that ability to anticipate and attend empathetically to the needs of the other. They became models to their descendants to care for the stranger and the vulnerable. You could say they implanted חסד into our genetic make-up. We remember that we were once slaves in Egypt, pariahs in medieval Europe, parasites in twentieth century Germany, perverse aliens in contemporary Middle Eastern Arab cultures, and treated as parvenus in too many contemporary European countries.
Yet for all this, we should and (so many Jews) do feel the acute sense of solidarity with the hapless refugees across the world. We do know the danger of the stranger, after all we were often perceived as undesirable and menacing outsiders. We are also keenly aware that many of the asylum seekers today are Muslims who have been raised with an antipathy towards us.
Notwithstanding this, we should welcome any solution to the dreadful condition of refugees on Manus and Nauru. We should support any moves to remove children from their forsaken camps as was done this week. We should promote any efforts to end this sad and broken policy. Closer to home, it also reminds us how as a congregation we should always look out for the visitors to our shule.
It is said that what made Sodom such a malevolent place was its policy towards migrants. According to the Midrash this is how the Sodomites responded to visitors: They provided a standard bed and “helped” the guest fit into the bed either by stretching them or amputating their limbs. (Interestingly this same story is referred to in the Greek myth of Procrustes).
In other words, the people of Sodom believed in “one size fits all,” a monochromatic culture. No place or space for strangers in this society… They were reflexive bridge burners. Abraham and Sarah were their polar opposites, individuals who were prepared to put aside their own comfort and security to engage with the outsider. They built and crossed bridges to others, they were kind and compassionate, they were courageous and caring. They were the first Jews, they are our models.