St. Barnabas Interfaith Gathering: You Are My Neighbor

Hinei Mah Tov U’mah naim, shevet achim gam yachad.
How wonderful it is to be here today, to stand beside you, to stand amongst our Christian and Muslim brothers and sisters.

For at its core, this is our Jewish obligation, to not only stand beside our partners in faith, but to stand WITH you.

And that is why I am deeply honored to be here this evening to stand WITH you —

Our Jewish story teaches us over and over again the story of redemption. 36 times in our Torah, in the Five Books of Moses, we read, “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know what it felt like to be a stranger.”

36 times! And we repeat this weekly in Shabbat prayers too. Not simply to recall the history of the Jewish people and not simply to celebrate our freedom from bondage. No — 36 times over and more we are commanded as a Jewish people to remember what it felt like to be treated as the Other, what it felt life to be an “foreigner in a strange land” for one clear reason:

So that we never allow others to feel oppressed, so that if and when we see others who are oppressed we not only behave differently, but we actually take action, we stand WITH our brothers and sisters and say, “no, this is not okay. We will not oppress the Other.”

Each year, when we celebrate our Passover holiday, Jews recline as they retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, as they pass down this story of bondage to freedom from generation to generation.
But we, Jews are mistaken if we think that we recline to celebrate our freedom FROM Slavery. For that is not where our story ends. That is not where the story of the Jewish people ends. No — we recline, we retell our story for a purpose. We were freed from Egypt for a purpose.

That purpose is to fulfill our sacred obligation, we we free TO do something — to never oppress the stranger. Yes, we retell our Jewish story time and time again, so that we always remember that our OBLIGATION is to stand WITH the other, to stand WITH the oppressed, to stand WITH the refugee, to stand WITH the immigrant.

For us, as a Jewish people, being free does not mean a cessation from work, no it means a continued OBLIGATION to work!
And that is exactly what our Jewish people have done for generations and will continue to do!

So yes, when we see a rising fear of the Other, Rising Islamophobia, hateful acts towards our neighbors Jewish or not, we will not only stand up for what is right, but we will stand WITH our partners, stand WITH those who are feared, those who are mistreated, those experiencing injustice.

For ours is a tradition that is bound to the experience of the stranger, bound to the experience of the refugee, bound to the experience of the immigrant.

And we know what it felt like. When I encounter the stranger, I must encounter his soul, I must experience her pain, his sadness, her joy, or his fear. Her pain becomes my pain, his fear my fear.

This week, we read in our Torah about the building of the mishkan, the sanctuary. The Jewish people are wandering in the wilderness and have no home — and so they construct the mishkan, the temporary dwelling place of worship in the desert. In a sense, they create their very first Jewish home.

The Torah outlines detail after detail as to how the Israelites should construct their sanctuary. Perhaps most interesting — there are to be no walls. Interestingly, the very first Jewish home is open on all sides — what is inside and what is outside must be connected. Who is inside and who is outside are all interconnected.

The very first Jewish home was only temporary, and it was without walls. When the Israelites were wandering from place to place, they truly had no sense of security, no sense of comfort. My guess — they were pretty vulnerable.

But embedded in this week’s Torah portion and in the lessons of this first Jewish home is a lesson for us as well. There may be times when we, too, are vulnerable, or when we may encounter others who are vulnerable. Even then, there in the wilderness, the mishkan, the temporary dwelling place was without walls. For our Torah is teaching us a lesson about our obligation as Jewish — homes, holy places, holy space — should ALWAYS be open!

And we have a deep religious obligation to ALWAYS welcome the stranger, to ALWAYS welcome the oppressed, ALWAYS welcome the immigrant.

People may try to divide us, but when you attack one of us, you attack all of us.

We’ve seen this in just the last month.

It is our obligation as Jews and as individuals to support you — we will continue to stand with you at airports, we will open our houses of worship to you, share our space WITH you, pray WITH you. And we so greatly appreciate your support too — especially in recent weeks after the desecration of two Jewish cemeteries and the onslaught of bomb threats in Jewish Community Centers around the country.

When our walls our permeable, when our spaces are open, when we come together as a community of communities — more good, more action, more work happens. Just take a look around at this amazing gathering of people — each of us with a story, with a dream, with a hope — for a better future, a better tomorrow, that we will ALL work towards TOGETHER.

Our Jewish story is one of a wandering people, of being the Other.
We were strangers in the land of Egypt, our Ancestors were turned back time and time again.
36 times. 36 times we read in our Torah that we know what it felt like.
We will learn from our history, from our story –
We cannot and will not turn our backs on those who seek haven here today.

What we need now, more than ever is not walls but bridges, not strangers but neighbors.

Hinei Mah Tov U’mah naim, shevet achim gam yachad.
How important, how necessary, how hopeful it is to be here today, to stand together WITH you!

Thank you.

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