Welcoming the Stranger
Sermon by Rabbi Joel M. Mosbacher
Friday, January 21, 2022 / 19 Shevat, 5782
He was so vulnerable, whether he realized it or not.
It’s easy for us to see that in retrospect.
He had every reason not to let in a stranger. His head must have been occupied with his own community and their needs–I know mine would have been at that hour of the day on that day of the week. No doubt he was thinking about all that lay ahead for him and his work, everything he needed to do to prepare himself for the day.
And anyway, the world he lived in could be a scary place. Who knew whether an unfamiliar face would bring decency and gratitude, or something darker.
When he saw the person coming, I can only imagine that he might have been thinking, in part, about the stories he’d heard of strangers coming in and doing harm.
Or maybe he wasn’t thinking about that at all.
I wish I could ask him what was on his mind as he approached the entrance.
We all know what happened next. He opened his tent, and he invited them in. He practiced the kind of hospitality that is a hallmark of Judaism. He fulfilled one of the mitzvot–hachnasat orchim–welcoming in a guest–that our daily morning prayers tell us is an obligation without measure. We can never do it enough, the mishnah says. We can never say, “oh, I once welcomed a stranger, so I can check that obligation off of my list.”
He acted with kindness and compassion. He must have known what an uncomfortable day it was outside. He didn’t want to leave someone-even someone he didn’t know to suffer in the elements or wondering if they’d be welcome.
So he greeted them, and welcomed them in. He treated them as he treated each person he encountered–as if they were created b’tzelem Elohim in the Divine image; worthy of being cared for with humanity and hospitality.
And he immediately set to work preparing something warm for them to enjoy.
He is a role model for me, for all Jews-someone I’d want our children to model themselves after. He did what a Jew should do.
Thirty six times in the Torah, more than any other mitzvah, we are taught–“take care of the stranger because you know what it’s like to be the stranger, the outsider, the wanderer, the seeker of a safe place to call home.”
I can’t imagine what I would have done in that moment.
I’d like to think that I would have done exactly as he did; followed his example; welcomed a guest into my tent into our tent.
I speak, of course, of our ancestor Abraham in the book of Genesis. You may remember the story1; in the oppressive heat of a day in the desert, 99 year old Abraham, recovering from his painful circumcision, notices three strangers passing by his tent, and he rushes out to welcome them.
Abraham overlooks heat and pain and inconvenience and even the potential for trouble in order to open his arms to someone in need. And then, having welcomed them in, he makes sure they’re comfortable that they have something to drink and eat. He invites them to sit and stay awhile.
Now– if you know the story in the Torah, you know that these three guests were angels who would help Abraham along his path.
But that’s irrelevant here. Abraham didn’t know they were angels when he invited them in. He just treated three complete strangers as if they might be angels of the Divine, rather than assuming that they were a threat to him.
What could be a more authentic righteous, praiseworthy, inspiring act of faith than what Abraham did? What he did was the best of what religious traditions call us to do.
Last shabbat morning, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, a colleague with whom I have had the privilege of doing gun violence prevention work acted just like Abraham did just like our morning prayers demand that we do. He acted the way I want us to act.
Last Shabbat morning, a stranger, on an unseasonably cold Texas morning approached Congregation Beth Israel. Rabbi Cytron-Walker opened the door, welcomed the stranger in, and made him a cup of tea.
We know how this story unfolded too. For reasons that are still as of yet not publicly known, that man returned the hospitality extended by a Reform rabbi by taking the rabbi and three congregants hostage, holding them for over 10 hours until the hostages took matters into their own hands and managed, thankfully, to escape without being physically harmed.
Some of the foundational precepts of our faith—the precepts of generosity and trust — our belief in the essential goodness of human beings– those were all tested six days ago.
After the terrible ordeal in Colleyville, as Rabbi Cytron Walker said so powerfully last Sunday night at a service of healing and resilience he led, this time, at least unlike at other similar services he’d participated in in recent years, he didn’t have to say Kaddish at the end. Thankfully, we don’t find ourselves weeping this time over lives brutally taken by a gunman.
But there are still so many tears to be shed.
As Washington Post writer Robin Givhan wrote this week2, “It’s quite astonishing when people who historically have felt the brunt of unfettered hatred and violence continue to extend their hand. It’s nothing short of miraculous that those who have been demonized are still willing to listen to their better angels — indeed, that they’re willing to heed them.”
The generosity of Congregation Beth Israel calls to mind the welcoming embrace of the worshipers at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC in 2015. The Black men and women of that congregation opened their hearts to the stranger who came to the door during their Bible study. They fellowshipped with him and prayed with him. And then he, a white supremacist, killed nine of them, including the senior pastor.
The worshipers had not allowed the history of American racism and violence against Black churches to cause them to throw up physical barricades and emotional walls. They didn’t look at the young man who would become their murderer as a stereotype or an archetype. They saw an individual.
Surely, that’s a testament to the resilience of the human heart.
As Robin Givhan writes, “The very nature of faith is in being willing to take a risk, to believe in a source of goodness or solace or strength that’s impossible to explain. “Faith is wholly illogical. A congregation is little more than fertile ground where the tiniest seeds of hope can grow.”
My friends, we have excellent security systems in place at our synagogue.
Despite the fact that I didn’t become a rabbi to stay behind double-locked doors and armed guards, I know, sadly, that the world in which we live requires a high level of security for synagogues; the rise of antisemitism in our time is real, and scary. As I said to you on Yom Kippur, I am not naive about that.
Annually, our staff has had the kind of emergency response training that Rabbi Cytron-Walker described that prepared him to do things he prayed and we prayed he’d never need to do. I imagine that on this particular shabbat, that some of us might have taken our places for services while taking special heed of the closest exit.
I am grateful that our security team checks bags and patrols the building. And if you’re grateful, please thank them tonight and every time you come into this sacred space. And if you’re grateful, please also be patient with them as they check your bag and your vaccine status and your health questionnaire and your temperature. Because we’ve asked them to do that to help keep us safe.
But here’s the thing that I want us to continue to wrestle with, even as we ensure that our security stance is robust and strong.
What would a synagogue or church or mosque or meeting house be if only the familiar people were allowed in?
At their most beautiful and inspiring best, congregations like ours lift up the human spirit and make room for everyone’s flaws and failures. They’re nonjudgmental and take people at their word. They see the best in others often just when it has become impossible for people to see the goodness in themselves. At their best, communities of faith like Shaaray Tefila and Congregation Beth Israel and Mother Emanuel are places for people to take sanctuary to find the warmth of other human beings; the warmth of a cup of tea.
This space must remain a space where all people– the people who are regulars and the people who are just tip-toeing in to a spiritual journey- can fulfill their need for meaning, connection, and purpose.
What just might make the attack last week so grievous, and the attack in Pittsburgh and Poway and Charleston and all the attacks against communities of faith across the country in recent years— in addition to the lives that have been taken and the families that have been forever traumatized — is that these attacks take aim at the spirit of hospitality that synagogues and churches and mosques are all about.
The power of this eternal light as with the eternal light in every synagogue is that it is meant to shine its light beyond these walls.It is a beacon that says to every human being, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “This House Shall Be a House of Prayer For All Peoples.”
So many of you have told me that the reason you love Shaaray Tefila isn’t necessarily the building or the place of honor it has in the history of New York or the history of Reform Judaism in America.
My wholly unscientific survey tells me that the number one reason that people join this congregation the number one reason you tell me that you love this congregation the number one reason that you tell your friends about why you stay members is because every person feels welcome here; because we make newcomers feel welcome; because when people come into Shaaray Tefila, our Gates of Prayer, we make them feel at home.
Every assault against a community of faith is a reminder that our open hearts and open doors are an astounding, heartbreaking miracle.
And I pray even more fervently this week that this miracle continues-even in a time-perhaps especially in a time of fear and sadness and anger.
My friends, even as we focus this week on ensuring that our congregation is secure, which we must and are doing, let us remember Abraham who welcomed three strangers into his tent and gave them food and drink.
For Shaaray Tefila to remain Shaaray Tefila, we, and every community of faith, must continue to strive to strike the balance between security and hospitality between a defensive stance and open arms between acting out of fear and acting out of love.
Because, as Juliette Kayem, former assistant secretary for homeland security and a synagogue goer herself wrote this week: “A synagogue is not an airport or a stadium. When it becomes a fortress, something immeasurable is lost.”3
My friends, will our synagogue be safe and secure or will it be an open tent? I pray that we don’t have to choose all one or all the other.
I pray, and I will work and I will beg you to join me in ensuring that we don’t turn our legitimate fears into baseless hatred of people of other faith traditions or other racial backgrounds.
I pray, and I will work, and I will beg you to join me, in ensuring that this house remains a house of prayer, a house of study, a house of sacred action, for all peoples.
I’d like to invite you to help me conclude this sermon tonight by joining me in words written by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker.
1 Genesis 18:1-16
2 “The Miracle of An Open Door,” Washington Post online edition, January 18, 2022
3 “A Synagogue Shouldn’t Be a Fortress,” The Atlantic, January 17, 2022