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The Commandment to Love the Stranger

We have a double Torah portion this week, Acharei Mot–Kedoshim. We in the Reform Movement know Kedoshim particularly well, because in addition to this appearance in the calendrical cycle, it is our Torah reading for the afternoon of Yom Kippur. Kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai EloheichemYou shall be holy, for I your Eternal God am holy. So it begins, and thus it is known as “The Holiness Code.” The Reform Movement chose it for the most sacred day of our year because it contains some of the most fundamental ethical precepts of the Torah, which have been enshrined in all of Jewish tradition.

On this Shabbat, I will restate one of the commandments of the Holiness Code, because it is one of 36 statements and re-statements of the same precept throughout our Torah. When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God.(Leviticus 19.33-34)

And since the Torah has stated and restated this principle so many times, please allow me as well to restate the obvious, as  I have stated it to you on numerous occasions in the past. Virtually all of us here in America are either descendants of immigrants, or immigrants ourselves.  My own ancestors came to America from Germany and Russia to escape oppressive regimes in which Jews had no opportunity to breathe the air of freedom and pursue their aspirations. I am grateful that America took them in. Both of them became loyal, productive American citizens, raising families and finding some enjoyment in life.

Throughout our history as Jews, we have known the perils and uncertainties of having to leave the lands of our birth and journeying to distant lands, into the unknown. Our Torah teaches us to remember the Exodus from Egypt so that we will make it our business to help the strangers in our midst, now that we are settled. It is one of the most fundamental precepts of our existence as Jews. And here in the Holiness Code, we are not only commanded not to wrong the stranger, but to love the stranger—for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

On this Shabbat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, during which this commandment to love the stranger is within our Torah reading, we will address the pressing problems of this very difficult time in America, in which the safety and security of the “strangers” in our midst are being threatened as never before. This Shabbat will be our Fourth Friday Shabbat. Kabbalat Shabbat at 6:30 as usual, and then a Shabbat dinner to follow ($10 please). And then after dinner, at 8:30, we will gather for an important discussion on this crisis. The topic is: What is Really Happening with Immigration? Our social action immigration subcommittee will welcome Ahsanullah (Bobby) Khan, founder of the Coney Island Project, a program working to combat racism and promote empowerment for working-class South Asians. He will talk with us on how we can help. I hope you will join us for this urgent discussion.

The Miracle Within the Miracle

Next Wednesday night and Thursday we will celebrate the 70th anniversary of independence of the State of Israel. For the Jewish people, the establishment of the state was a modern miracle. And, even while dealing with serious internal and international problems, like any modern nation, Israel’s life continues to be miraculous. For my commentary this week, however, I’d like to focus briefly on a miracle within the miracle, which is possibly one of the most extraordinary of all. That is the transformation of the ancient Hebrew language into a living, spoken, ever-evolving organism. For several millennia, Hebrew existed in the Bible, in Rabbinic writings, in liturgy (the language of prayer) and in literature. It was spoken as an ancient language even before these bodies of literature evolved. But along with the development of modern Zionism came the realization that a new, modern nation would need a common language for communication between its citizens.

In this light, I offer a salute to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, z”l, who may rightly be called the Father of Modern Hebrew. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in Lithuania. He studied in cheyder, and after his bar mitzvah, he was sent to his uncle in Polotsk to study in a yeshiva. The head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, was secretly a participant in the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment Movement. Bloyker introduced young Eliezer to Enlightenment literature, and also to Hebrew grammar, which was forbidden to learn at the time. Ben-Yehuda became a journalist, but also adopted as his mission, the revitalization not only of Israel itself, but also the revitalization of the Hebrew language.

After founding several preliminary committees, in 1889 Ben-Yehuda and several colleagues founded the organization Safa Brura (“clear speech”), and in 1890, the organization formed the Literature Committee charged with the goal of “instilling in all the residents of our ancestral land one clear language, the tongue of our early ancestors, which is of utmost sacristy.”

What grew out of the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his colleagues was the Academy of the Hebrew Language, founded in 1904, and still flourishing today. At the dizzying pace of modern social, political, and technological development in our time, we can only imagine the gargantuan task of the Academy, and appreciate the seriousness with which it studies the development of new words, based upon the solid foundation of Hebrew grammar.

Here is an excellent example, close to home for us, of how new modern Hebrew words evolve. Take the word shinshin, for instance (accent on the 2nd syllable— shinSHIN). This is a word that many of you have probably heard around Union Temple for the past few years, because we have had a shinshin in our midst. A shinshin is a person, and our shinshin this year is named Aviv Kurnas. (It’s a good name for this time of year, because aviv means spring.) Here is how the word evolves.

As we know, in Israel, when young people graduate high school, generally at the age of 18, the expectation is that they will begin serving in the Israeli Army. However, some young Israelis choose to defer their army service for a year, and voluntarily embark on a service project of some sort. There are numerous opportunities in Israel. For instance, the Reform Movement there has a mechina program which is excellent. (Mechina means preparation.) Young men and women live and study in a common residence. They prepare their meals and assume full responsibilities of communal life. They generally devote their mornings to the beit midrash—the house of study. They study together, both with teachers from the Reform Movement, and also in hevruta —partnered study. Then in the afternoons, they fan out to the various projects in which they have committed to work. Some serve in senior centers. Some work with children who are disabled in one way or another: physically, emotionally, socially, etc. Some work on alleviating social distress in the neighborhood. When our own congregants journeyed to Israel in 2015, we visited the kids in the Reform Mechina located in Jaffa—a diverse neighborhood with a mixed population and a number of social and economic challenges, but also with an exciting tenor of progress. But this is only the Reform Mechina. In fact, there are similar programs in many communities all over Israel. The name shinshin emerges from this voluntary year of service.

Some of these young people devote this year to volunteer for an overseas adventure through the Jewish Agency. Their mission is to come to various neighborhoods in the United States and work in American Jewish day schools and religious schools, JCC’s and college Hillels, to help foster a more personal and helpful dialogue between Israelis and American Jews. (This program exists in Canada and elsewhere as well.) Union Temple in now concluding its 4th year in the program that exists in Brownstone Brooklyn. Our shinshinim have become integral members of our Religious School community, and while they have taught us a great deal about Israel. But in return, we in turn have taught them a great deal about us, and about the vibrancy of a pluralistic Jewish life in the United States.

As you may know, the “sh” sound is represented by the Hebrew letter shin (ש) . This letter begins both Hebrew words for the year of service, which is shnat sheirut—שנת שירות. So, since both words begin with shin, the volunteers of this program are known by the acronym that is formed from the first letters: shinshin, and in the plural, shinshinim. A small, but wonderful example, of the ongoing evolution of modern spoken Hebrew.

Israel, and those of us who are connected to her and love her, have embraced as our mission as well, to one degree or another, the learning of the Hebrew language. In my studies all these years, I can say without a doubt that the inter-relationships and conceptual connections of modern Hebrew words and expressions is indeed—a miracle. One of my goals in life is to keep improving my knowledge of Hebrew, and my ability to communicate within it. A formidable task, of course, sometimes overwhelming, but always infinitely rewarding.