Welcoming the Stranger: Rabbi Joshua Caruso – Rosh Hashanah 5774

This post to “If Not Now, When?” the interactive blog of Fairmount Temple includes the Rosh Hashanah sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso during the Contemporary Worship service at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple on Wednesday, September 4, 2013. In this post, Rabbi Caruso reflects on “Welcoming the Stranger” and shares images and ideas from his recent sabbatical journey through America with his family, from January through April of 2013. We encourage you to respond below, share or post so that the teachings shared here can be studied widely in our community.

Let me paint the picture: the Caruso people were grizzled travelers, making do as best we could to eat, sleep, and just live – but Passover was something different all together. For a few days we stayed with a lovely couple in South Dakota, and shared Seder with the nice folks in Wyoming, but for a few days we were on our own, hungry Jews fending for ourselves. We would often eat pizza or dine on Subway, but at Passover, we had our work cut out for us. One of those days, we ended up for lunch in a restaurant in Wall, South Dakota, only to find that they had stopped serving eggs an hour earlier. With nowhere else to go, we ate a lot of salad – and five different iterations of potato! Exhausted and emotionally spent, we all just hung our heads low, recognizing that we had truly bottomed out. At that moment, my oldest son spoke loudly with some diners in earshot, and asked, “What has become of us?”

“What has become of us?”…I can think of no better question to ask on these sacred days of introspection and self-examination.

I’d like to take this moment to wish everyone a Shanah Tovah! In many respects, this season is a time of reunions, as we all gather together in the same place at the same time for the New Year. In this light, I encourage everyone to take a moment and greet someone whom you don’t know. If you are with family and friends, just look behind you or ahead – or across the aisle – offer your name, and wish your fellow worshipper a “Shanah Tovah”…

Thank you for doing that, because I know for many of you it is not easy reaching out to an unfamiliar person – even in this friendly setting. Now, I’d like to rewind back to just one minute ago, and ask you to recall how it felt to reach out to a stranger…I bet some of you welcomed the moment, but for a good number of you, I would bet that reaching out in this way was not easy. I would bet that you would have rather had me start my talk, without all of this “welcoming” nonsense. Well, I will tell you that I too have felt this way, over and over and over again, because after traveling 14,000 miles and traversing more than 30 states, Leah, Lev, Asher, Shayna, and I shook many hands, greeted many people, and truly missed our home base here in Greater Cleveland.

Living in a car for four months was not restful time away, and while the adventure, new friends, beautiful sights, and many podcasts softened the hardships of a long trip, we still longed for a home-cooked meal and a soft bed in which to sleep. There were some nights when we stayed in budget hotels off of non-descript highways scattered with a Walgreens or CVS, or a Target down the road. This was the America we knew about, but we also knew just beneath the surface was something unique and homespun. And once we penetrated deeper, the seemingly endless strands of strip malls yielded a glimpse of a deeper and richer and more unique America. It was here, in these small pockets of American life, where I would learn the meaning of hachnassat orchim, welcoming the stranger.

There were times when we were welcomed for dinner, and there were nights when we were given a place in people’s homes to lay down our weary heads. What once we had taken for granted – a bed, a kitchen, a family room – was now what we desired more than anything else. Would a fancy hotel have worked? Okay, we wouldn’t have turned it down, but what we wished for was somewhere lived in; a place where children trample over the rug and dishes peek out of the sink, and where pictures of family adorn the repainted walls of a home. One need not be away for too long before those things – a rocking chair, a porch, a kitchen table, or even that dedicated hook on which to hang the keys…they all become objects of great desire.

That is why this sabbatical journey for 6 months was so much more than an exploration of American Judaism; it was a study in people (including my own family) and the ability of others to reach out beyond their comfort zones to provide a meal, a bed, and equally as important: to “know the soul of the stranger”[1], as the Book of Exodus demands. When we hear “stranger”, we often think of the kind we should steer clear of; the type we tell our children to avoid. Yet, the stranger in Jewish history, called the “Ger”, was often someone looking for safety, shelter, and support in a capricious world. In the Ancient Near East, unless you belonged to a clan or a tribe, chances of survival were minimal. Food, shelter, and protection were critical to one who was wandering through the desert, and those primary needs drove one to find a community with which to connect.

In the Caruso travels, we may not have been aimlessly traveling across barren desert, but we were definitely wanderers. All that was left of our state of origin was the Ohio license plate securely fixed to the car; we had cut off the umbilical cord of area code 216, and were roaming beyond the borders of Northeast Ohio. We were strangers in a strange land – and it was here in our own country!

Midway through the trip, after we had lodged with a colleague and his family in El Paso, Texas, we set out late at night for Arizona, passing through New Mexico. The area hugged the border of Mexico, and it was not uncommon to see border police vehicles. With our SUV packed tightly, a storage box attached to the rear, and a cargo carrier on top, Immigration cops stopped us near the border. Even though we played it cool, Leah and I were seized with panic. What if we were missing some documentation that we didn’t have on our persons? What if they told us that our car was too full, that we couldn’t see out the rear window properly? Or, that with the addition of the cargo carrier our car had exceed a certain height limit? What if they thought we were harboring an illegal immigrant, and who would believe that we were a bunch of Jews with “Caruso” as a surname? All joking aside, in those moments we did feel like strangers, and no matter who we were, and where we came from, and who could vouch for us, we were alone.

While we may have been centuries removed from the immigrant life of our ancestors, this episode reminded me of my grandfather who, at the age of 16, left his hometown of Amantea, Italy, for a train that would take him to Naples. Once there, he would board a ship bound for America. Luigi Caruso left his parents and 2 brothers in that southern Italian peasant town, and told me what it felt like to have his mother pulling on his coat at the train station, urging him not to go. He would leave the familiar confines of his life to become a stranger, and board a boat where sea-sickness was the norm; with no assurances he would be welcomed in America. I think about him often, and the sacrifices he made. I think about what it must have felt like to have been questioned, and how he was perceived by already established Americans. I imagine my momentary pangs of anxiety near the Mexican border offer no comparison to the way he felt in 1921.

Many of you here today could most surely share similar stories about your ancestors, and could speak about the great grandfather or great aunt who made sacrifices, and left the familiarity of the shtetl or the ghetto or the small city to escape pogroms, economic hardships, and simply to make a better life. Perhaps your relative was a holocaust survivor, and maybe you have knowledge that a family member was turned away at the border. As Jews, we know the story of the stranger, for we were the stranger, and as people of loving-kindness, we not only have the obligation to reach out to the distant stranger, but to the one sitting just a few seats away from you. It’s our obligation to know our neighbor, and to treat them as we would want to be treated by others.

Driving along in our comfy Honda Pilot, we had automobile insurance, credit cards, proper identification, and family back home to help us in the case of an emergency. None of us had a prison record, sold government secrets, or engaged in shady financial dealings. We were “clean”. And yet, we felt exposed. Because no matter how many protections one may have, there is always a part of us that feels like the stranger.

The concept of being the stranger is illuminated in our tradition. In fact, Torah and commentaries take detailed pains to teach us about how we should understand our role in treating the stranger. Our Scriptures feature no less than 36 warnings[2] against unsuitable behavior towards the stranger – no other commandment is referred to as frequently as, “Thou shalt love the stranger…The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”[3]. The Jewish way of acting on this command is related to the value of Hachnassat Orchim – welcoming the stranger as a guest.

In the Talmud, Rav Dimi of Nehardea said, “Hachnassat Orchim – the welcoming of guests – takes precedence over the beit midrash – of the house of study, and even over welcoming the Divine presence[4]. Even Abraham, who is lauded for his practice of welcoming the stranger, is the subject of a parable of what not to do. Abraham invited a stranger into his house, but when he saw him praying to an idol he shooed the man away. God intervened and, incredulous, spoke to the great patriarch (who was once an idol worshipper himself), saying, “I have borne with you (Abraham) these many years although you rebelled against Me (God), and you cannot bear with him one night?” Abraham realized his sin, and did not rest until he had brought the stranger back[5]. While our tradition counsels against it, we are prone to suspicion and even disdain for the stranger.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, took up this theme and said:

“Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me”.[6]

Compelling as it sounds; reaching out to the stranger can be daunting. And this is why we are consistently reminded of the directive. On our sabbatical, we were the “other” – the overly-stringent, kosher-eating family who steered away from meat, and who home-schooled their kids, and who took to the road in a car that was prohibitively packed to the gills. We were the other; the rabbi with a yarmulke, who along with his wife and kids looked road-weary every day. We may have not looked like homeless people; but we surely felt like it! There is a vulnerability one experiences upon entering an unfamiliar space with strangers. It could be at a party, or a new job setting, or even at the temple. What we feel is conspicuous; conspicuously alone and different, and most certainly the stranger. And that is what is most remarkable about the people we met in this country. Even the kosher-keeping, yarmulke-wearing, weary-looking Caruso clan, essentially strangers, was invited to enter into people’s homes. We were not only invited – we were welcomed and treated as if we were one of them.

Like the time in Rapid City, when we couldn’t find a piece of maztah to save our lives, but were hosted by a family who didn’t know us before I contacted them; or the time in Baton Rouge, when friends had kosher food delivered from New Orleans; or that evening in Natchez, Mississippi, when non-Jewish friends of the Jewish community there hosted us – strangers – for dinner at their home on the Mississippi River. How about the first night of Passover when community members in Jackson Hole, Wyoming hosted us for a traditional Passover meal, replete with Matzah ball soup and brisket? The five Carusos were strangers, only to find that we were sitting next to people who were strangers to us. I sat next to Jerry from New York, who moved out to the area so he could be near his kids and grandkids. In all his years, he would have never imagined that he would have a grandson born in Wyoming. Jerry, too, felt like a wandering Jew, but was comforted by family and friends, and by the small Jackson Hole community that stayed connected and close. The gesture of reaching out to another in the simplest of ways, like by breaking bread together, was not lost on us during our travels. In these small ways, we can break down the barriers we construct to shield us from the stranger.

One of my favorite biblical stories is when Moses is on the run from Pharaoh’s henchman after slaying an Egyptian taskmaster who struck a fellow Hebrew. He was a refugee on the run, but took the time to drive away mischievous shepherds in Midian who were preventing a number of young Midianite women from watering their flock. After the women returned home, one of them –Tzipporah – told her father, Jethro, that an ‘Egyptian man” had aided them. Jethro then said to his daughters, “And where is he? Why is it that you have left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.”[7] To Tzipporah, the stranger was an Egyptian-looking man, not the Hebrew that he was. She had labeled him the other, in the image she perceived. But her father modeled the importance of upholding the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger.

You see, the essence of Judaism was built and defined when we were slaves in Egypt – this is our master story. We were strangers in a strange land, and we never wanted to go back again – well, at least not until we got a little hungry on the way to the Promised Land! And yet, we continued on…with a little help from Moses and God. The essence of our faith is rooted in relational culture – how one treats the other (even when they are different) and that is why there are so many rules in our tradition about interaction between people like you and me.

A challenge: take a moment…take a moment and think about someone in the community who is a stranger to you. And let yourself move beyond the image that might immediately come to mind. Consider someone who thinks or acts differently from you. This person might be politically involved, while you are not. Maybe you imagine the individual to be religiously active at temple, and you don’t connect that way. Perhaps this person is brash, while you practice subtlety; you are the extrovert, while this person is reserved. This person may even be a family member, but there is distance between the two of you. Take just a moment and think about who that person might be…Could you imagine approaching this individual…reaching out in some way?

Perhaps we can work on this challenge together – you and me; it is the Jewish New Year, and a chance to view things from a new prism.

Rosh Hashanah’s lesser known name, Yom HaZikaron, feels very appropriate tonight. Yom HaZikaron means, “Day of Remembrance”. Let us never forget how we were once the stranger, and let us seek to know the soul of the stranger in our midst. We should expect no less of our community; we should expect no less of ourselves. Let this year be a year when we decide to reach out to the stranger, “Because the stranger is me.”



[1] Exodus 23:9

[2] As Rabbi Eliezer points out in Baba Metzia 59b

[3] Leviticus 19:34

[4] Shabbat 127a

[5] See Bamberger, Proselytism in the Talmudic Period (Cincinnati, Ohio: Hebrew Union College Press, 1939), p. 209, note 17.

[6] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant and Conversation, p. 186

[7] Exodus 2:11-22