This past weekend my family and I traveled to Lake Placid for my cousin’s wedding. It was of course a wonderful affair. On our return we stopped at a rest stop on I-87. There was a swarm of travelers. (And that made me quite nervous for what awaited us on the Tappan Zee Bridge.) There were people wearing kippahs, veils, turbans and saris. There was a cacophony of languages to be heard. It was a glimmer of the new America.
It is a new America that makes some uncomfortable. I understand people’s emotions when debating immigration laws. I sense the worries about jobs. There are arguments to be made about the benefits of unfettered immigration. And there are counter arguments about its dangers. Rational discussions appear to elude us. The debate appears more a matter of the heart. And to be honest my heart is with my ancestors. It is their words that animate my sentiments about immigration.
When we enter the land of Israel and there find a permanent home we are commanded to declare: “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there…” (Deuteronomy 26:5) As soon as we find ourselves in a home we remind ourselves that we were wanderers. The message is clear. Home is fleeting. As soon as we arrive there, we must remind ourselves that we were once wanderers. Never forget our immigrant past.
We must never become so comfortable and at ease, and at home. We are forever wandering. That is the nature of human history. All are immigrants. And we forget this to our own peril. My family arrived in the United States three generations ago. All but one of my grandparents was born in Eastern Europe. Does this make my family more American than the new conglomeration of people at a New York rest stop?
36 times the Torah admonishes us to love the stranger. “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…” (Leviticus 19:33-34) Was this command repeated so many times because it was deemed of utmost importance or because it was so difficult to fulfill? Perhaps it was for both reasons.
Loving those who are unlike us is exceedingly difficult. It is contrary to how we often feel. Over and over again the Torah commands us to fight such impulses. Despite such challenges we must reach out to those who are strangers. “…For you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)
Very soon we come to feel at home. We forget that we too were immigrants. We then see ourselves as legitimate citizens and others as strangers. All are immigrants. All are wanderers.