“Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger since you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).”
Thirty-six times this sentiment will be shared inside the sacred text of Torah. While we are told to not seethe a mother and her calf three times in Torah, not oppressing or ignoring the status of “an other” appears 12 times more frequently. This past week I got up from sitting Shiva for my 101 year old mother. Her burial on Har Hamenuchot in Jerusalem will enable her to spend eternity in the land from which she drew inspiration her entire life. During the course of the week, our family was visited by so many different people—friends of my siblings, family who live in Israel, folks that have been present in our lives for decades. It was especially touching that so many rabbinic colleagues made an effort to visit. But perhaps the most significant visitors were the ones who had no “obligation” to offer comfort, but who offered the truest comfort there ever was.
My mother was blessed by an amazing caregiver for 8 long years. Maria was by her side 24/7 or perhaps 24/5.5. The other times, my sister who made Aliyah in 1972 traveled into Jerusalem to provide respite for Maria and also provide the intense care our mother needed. Maria, like so many other caregivers all around Israel, comes from the Philippines. Now only in her mid-30’s she cared for our mother for these 8 years—years that she could have been building a life for herself. Instead, she supported her own family in the Philippines and, yet, in the process became part of our family. My sister relied on her, my mother depended on her for all of her care as the years wore on. The most intimate of personal attention was demanded. And yet, my mother always appeared well groomed and cared for. There wasn’t a Shabbat or Yontiff that came and went without my mother sitting at a table with flowers, candles lit, and the sense of the sacred filling the room. My mother may not have been cognizant of the care, but her children understood the beauty of the moment. When she was still able to participate at Melabev, Maria accompanied her on the bus and spent the day until it was time for my mother to return home. Maria was, of course, compensated for her work. Whatever the compensation was that she received was certainly not commensurate with the care she provided, the love she extended and the care she demonstrated. In the course of these 8 years, Maria demonstrated that “a heart knows a heart.” At the funeral, she sat among us mourners. During the first days of Shiva she sat with us in the living room, grieving my mother’s death in ways that were profound and real.
On Sundays, Maria regularly went to Church and my sister would spend the day and night with our mom, giving Maria a needed respite. On the Sunday when we were sitting Shiva, around noon, Maria returned from Church. She returned with 5 of her friends—also all from the Philippines. This group came into the room where we were sitting, leaving boxes of cookies on the table and proceeded to sit down with my sister and me and offer comfort. Some of these women had been in Israel for nearly 2 decades. Some only a year or two. All of them had helped Maria at one point or the other with our mom’s care. They stayed for an hour or so, sharing stories of our mom, sharing stories of their own traditions following a death in the Philippines. They quietly entered and they left appropriately—and in the process demonstrated the impact of living in a country that-while not their own-had become a significant part of their lives.
Several years ago, on my last Shul trip to Israel before I retired, I asked Maria to share her story with our group. What was it like to play a significant role in the country—but not be fully a part of the country? Her quiet eloquence that evening was profound and shook many of my congregants as she shared the unfortunate transactional nature that unfolded between Israel and some of her residents. While I want to think that our family understood Maria’s humanity completely, I am not so foolish to believe that we also at times didn’t think of Maria in only transactional terms. We compensated her for caring for our mom. And yet, we were also cognizant that Maria was demonstrating the best humanity can ever display. And so, while we worked hard to fulfill the biblical imperative, that Shiva visit from Maria’s sister and friends was evidence actually of how much they had been impacted by the culture of our people over these years of their service and care.
What is the responsibility of a society that is dependent on a foreign population caring for its elderly? What is the responsibility of a people, a religion, a nation when it seeks out folks to do the work that its own won’t do? Perhaps that is why the Torah reminds us of our own story of origin so often. “Know the heart of the stranger,” “one law for the stranger and citizen alike”, “do not oppress the stranger for you were once strangers in a strange land.” At the end of the day, I actually believe the Torah repeats this sentiment because it actually is the hardest part of one’s religious journey. If in the process of seeking out the sacred in life, we ignore the humanity of the other—we will always fall short. Maria and her friends reminded us of that Divine command directed towards humanity. During that profoundly moving Shiva visit, there was a real sense of the Divine presence—as if the “Makom” was truly comforting all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. My mother’s memory will be for a blessing because she lived a blessed life. But it will also be a memory filled with blessing because for 8 long years, she was showered in blessing by a woman who reminded us as to why the Torah constantly reminds us to know the heart of a “stranger.”