Love the Stranger

Last week, I had the pleasure of celebrating Havdalah at Tanglewood with many of you, as well as many new faces. Havdalah, a moment of separating and distinguishing between Shabbat and the rest of the week, was a real moment of coming together for our Temple family.

Looking out over the Stockbridge bowl, with a hint of rain hanging in the air - it was a postcard moment - greetings from the Berkshires!

Thunder and rain rolled in shortly after the beginning of the evening’s musical performance, a live orchestration of Leonard Bernstein’s musical and film, West Side Story. For those who stuck it out, or for those already familiar with the film, we were treated to a classic tale of romance and love lost. A story with its roots in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet of two star-crossed lovers, whose families will never allow them to be together. 

In Bernstein’s modern context, the musical sets up two rival gangs - the Sharks and the Jets. I recently learned that Bernstein initially wrote the musical as a relationship between an Irish Catholic gang and a Jewish gang, and that he wanted to call it East Side Story! Of course, in the iteration we know, the Jets, Maria, and Bernardo are all Puerto Rican - reflecting the wave of Puerto Rican immigration to New York city in the 1950s.

Maria and Tony’s love is not meant to be. Their families and communities kept them apart because they came from different backgrounds, different life experiences, different waves of immigration to our country.

Can we really call West Side Story a love story?
Cynically, we can equally see it as a story of hate - hatred for those who are different from us, different from each other. The beautiful music and dance only elevate the struggle and tragedy these characters experience.

This week’s Torah portion, Eikev, restates a consistent principle in the Torah:
V’ahavtem et ha’ger, ki gerim hayitem b’eretz Mitzrayim
“Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19)

Love the stranger. And why? Because this is who were are, too. In Egypt, we were oppressed, we were enslaved, we were treated differently, we were forced to live separately. Although initially welcomed, later, we were not wanted. We were not loved.

Many generations later, the immigrant story was our story again. How many here are first generation immigrants? Second? Third? Earlier? While many of us may have had family in America for a long time now, the immigrant experience is our experience. You were strangers in the land of Egypt, you were strangers in the United States of America.

A few weeks ago, our new au pair, Cami, arrived from Colombia to help us take care of our 1-year old son, Lior. Neil and I love this program because it is a cultural exchange. Cami will stay with us for one year, teaching us about both Colombian and Catholic traditions, holidays, and maybe a little Spanish, too. In turn, Neil and I share both Jewish and American culture and religion with Cami. We are so excited for Lior to grow up knowing and meeting people who are from different parts of the world.

It’s hard to avoid the headlines about immigration, particularly around the Mexico border. Recently, at the dinner table, we were talking with Cami about what is going on in the US today. 

“We are not politicians,” I say to Cami, “or people who go to work each day to change the laws in our country directly. We are rabbis, and we are Jews. We care about this issue because of Jewish values and because of our history. Our families were immigrants to America, so we will always feel connected to the story of refugees seeking asylum and coming to America for a better life. And as the Bible teaches us, we will love those immigrants and refugees as ourselves.”

We were strangers in Egypt. We were strangers in New York and Boston, in Pittsfield and Sandisfield. We can relate. We can love.

I recently heard Senator Cory Booker describe something he learned from an early mentor in Newark. He said,

"when I first started on Martin Luther King Boulevard, with Miss Jones … she checked me, hard, and she said, “Describe the neighborhood.” And I described it like [this] — the drug dealing, the projects, the abandoned building. And she just said to me, in a very curt way, “Boy, you need to understand that the world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you, and if you’re one of those people who only sees darkness, despair, that’s all there’s ever gonna be. But if you see hope, opportunity, if you’re stubborn enough to, every time you open your eyes, [if you] see love and the face of God, then you can be a change agent here. Then you can make a difference.”

West Side Story is as relevant today as it was over a half century ago. How else could this musical have ended? We can write a new ending for this tragic love story by loving the stranger today. As the Torah teaches us, as our history demands of us, it is our responsibility to begin with love. It begins with how we walk down the street, how we pay for our cup of coffee in the morning - looking into the eyes of every person we pass or meet, whether, on the surface, we are different or alike, and seeing only love.