Last week’s Torah portion included a reading of the “Ten Commandments.” These were not the first Ten Commandments. They are more like the “Top Ten Commandments” of the Abrahamic faiths, with all of their roots right here. This week’s parsha is a gigantic list of many, many more commandments, more often translated as “ordinances,” the mishpatim, the name of the parsha.
They are both ethical and ritual laws. It has been said that this set of laws “seals” the covenant between the Children of Israel and G-D because the Children of Israel respond not with Amen or hallelujah, but with, “We will do and we will hear,” we will do what you ask of us, even if it takes a while for us to understand the why of what you ask.
Sometimes, I wonder if there is a commandment missing, not even implied. In this part of the Torah, and elsewhere in the TaNaKh, or Jewish Bible, we see references to interacting with “strangers,” or “foreigners.” However, we do not see an imperative to transform a stranger into a friend … or at least try.
Back in Genesis 18:2, we are taught the Jewish ethic of Welcoming Guests, Hachnasat Orchim, by Abraham, recovering from surgery, running from his tent door to meet three strangers who had arrived. Abraham welcomed them, provided hospitality and they left, apparently still as strangers or foreigners. Abraham made no attempt to transform these strangers into friends.
This week, in Exodus 23:9, we see, for one of many times, the instruction: “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress; for ye know well the spirit of the stranger, seeing ye yourself were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Translation from Chumash, Dr. M. Stern, Star Hebrew Company, 1950s?) We will see this again in Deuteronomy 10:19, “Love ye therefore the stranger; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” In Talmud, R. Judah said in the name of Rav’s name: “Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the presence of Shechinah (God).” Rabbi Judah does not speak of transforming guests into friends.
Using a midrashic approach, we can search all of the books of TaNaKh, without having to assume that they are in a chronological order or even that the contents of each book is in chronological order. Using this assumption, when we get out of Torah, past Nevi’im (The Prophets), and all the way over into Ketuvim (the later writings), we find two beautiful references to friends. In the Book of Proverbs, 17:17, we study, “A friend is devoted at all times.” (JPS translation) In the Book of Job, also in Ketuvim, in 2:11, we study the very touching lesson of friendship, “When Job’s three friends heard about all these calamities that had befallen him, each came from his home … They met together to go and console and comfort him.” (JPS translation) How did these three, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Namathite, transform from being strangers in the eyes of Job to being such close friends? How does it happen to anyone? My closest friend and I have been joined at the hip, figuratively of course, for nearly 60 years. How did it become that way?
Here I look at scripture for insights, but I think the bottom line is it is one of HaShem’s mysteries, more so, one of HaShem’s blessings. There are two touching insights in our texts. Naomi goes to Moab to escape the famine, and loses everything there except the one incredible addition to her life, Ruth. The description of the friendship is with a word used very sparingly, v’dabek. Ruth did not only return with Naomi, Ruth did not only walk back with Naomi. Rather, Ruth cleaved to Naomi. Now there is a friend.
Returning to Job, when the three friends “met together to go and console and comfort him … none spoke a word to him for they saw how very great was his suffering.” (JPS)
A friend cleaves to you no matter what and a friend meets you where you are at, and is not there to change you.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman of Congregation Tifereth Israel of Glen Cove, New York, published a sermon with the sad title of, “The Declining Mitzvah of Welcoming Strangers.” Rabbi Huberman teaches that the light of Hachnasat Orchim is the light of empathy and care; it is the light where we are inspired to ask, “What can I do for you?” rather than “What can you do for me?” Rabbi Huberman continues, “Our sages teach that when we invite someone for dinner, and they thank us, the correct response is, ‘Thank you. It was so great having you. Please come again.’” Rabbi Huberman reaches a conclusion of “the future of Judaism will likely be determined … by the connections we make with newcomers searching for a sense of connection.”
Before COVID-19 became the saddest pandemic of our time, we were grappling with the threefold pandemic of loneliness, isolation and despair. We still have that second pandemic in the background, afflicting those suffering from the viral pandemic and others. It will surely be more obvious again as the vaccinations roll out. We must keep our eyes on loneliness Friendship is an incredible treatment for loneliness.
Valerie Kaur, an American writer, activist and Sikh follower, published a book in 2020 with the aspirational title, See No Stranger. Rabbi Stephanie Kolin reviewed the book and wrote of Kaur, “Her wisdom reads like the prayer the world needs to be screaming and singing right now … it is the world we are craving and she imagines it until it is very nearly real.”
This Shabbat, as we read, “And a stranger shalt thou not oppress,” let’s visualize that it is followed by, “a stranger thou shalt transform into a friend … or at least try.”
As the late Ram Das (1931-2019), American spiritual teacher in the Buddhist tradition, was fond of saying, to condense all of his teachings, “We are just walking each other home. We are all just walking each other home.”
Barry Pitegoff is a Staff Chaplain at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, New York. Barry enjoyed thousands of hours of volunteer chaplaincy at hospitals, hospices, and prisons while he was vice president of market research for Visit Florida, the state’s tourism board. After retirement, Barry transformed into professional chaplaincy by taking a second Master’s Degree and two years’ of hospital internships. Barry was awarded the title of BCC, Board Certified Chaplain at the May 2019 conference of the NAJC (Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains). In 2020, Chaplain Barry was elected to the Board of NAJC, serves on Chaplain Review Committees, and facilitates a monthly national video call of Jewish hospital chaplains.