September 7, 2006
Greeting the Stranger
Parshat Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
One of the most daunting and intimidating experiences in life is walking into a new synagogue for the first time. You enter the sanctuary, and it feels like 1,000 eyes are focused only on you. You're not sure what prayer book they're using, what page they're on, and where you can find a tallit.
What happens next either makes it or breaks it for the visitor. In a good shul, someone comes over to you and says, "Hi, you look new here. Shalom Aleichem. Can I help you find a seat? Would you like a siddur?" In the bad shul, the only time someone comes over to you is to tell you, "Excuse me, you're in my seat."
This is not exclusively a Jewish problem. The book, "The Inviting Church, a Study of New Member Assimilation" (Alban Institute, 1997), reports that one congregation handled this situation by putting the following two notices in the Order of Service:
"Notice to Visitors: People who attend St. Mark's regularly are for the most part kind and friendly people, but they tend to be a bit shy and self-conscious with strangers. They are afraid of greeting people they think are new and discovering that 'the visitors' have been attending St. Mark's for years. So please help. Identify yourself to the people nearest you and ask them to tell you about our church."
"Notice to St. Mark's Members: Please do your best to make everyone feel welcome. Always introduce yourself to the people sitting near you if you don't know their names. To avoid the embarrassment of mistaking a longtime member for a visitor, use the following ploy: 'Good morning. My name is ____________. I've been coming to St. Mark's for _________(years/weeks). How about you?'"
As a rabbi, I know that my congregants aren't bad people; some of them are simply a bit shy and unaccustomed to greeting total strangers. I use the argument that we have to put ourselves in the stranger's shoes. If we were to be the visitor and they the host, wouldn't we want to be treated with friendliness and a smile instead of silence and a cold shoulder? This week, they came to daven with us; next week, we may be guests in their shul.
Our parsha describes the mitzvah of bringing one's first fruits (bikurim) as a gift to the Temple. This was a way of showing one's gratitude to God for a good crop.
The Torah concludes the mitzvah by saying, "And you shall rejoice in all the goodness that God has given to you and your household; you, the Levite, and the stranger that is within your midst." This commandment to rejoice with the Levite and the stranger, people who aren't local landowners, teaches us that there's more to this mitzvah than just mustering proper gratitude. It's also meant to remind us that no matter how comfortable we've become as the ba'al habayit, as the owner of our home and our field, we are still no different from the stranger. He may have just arrived to town a few days ago, but we also arrived from a strange land. We know what it feels like to be treated like the outsider, and remember that feeling of "otherness" we had in Egypt. Hopefully, this will spur us to treat the strangers in our society with the compassion that we never received from the Egyptians.
Right after World War II, refugees were pouring in by the thousands to the United States. Many Jews, recognizing these "greeners" as their cousins, welcomed them with open arms. Other, more Americanized Jews kept their distance. The bitter irony was that many of these Yankees were themselves just first- or second-generation Americans, and their parents or grandparents were the same "greeners" just a few years previously. Many of us are faced with the same challenge when dealing with new immigrants from Israel, Iran, or the former Soviet Union. The "greener" that I see before me today may be the spitting image of my grandfather 70 years ago.
During the recent war in Lebanon, thousands of northern Israelis had to temporarily relocate to cities further south. One of Israel's proudest moments was when fellow Israelis opened their homes with open arms to their brethren from up north, and shared their shelters and meals with complete strangers for weeks at a time. Similarly, one of America's proudest moments was when evacuees from last year's Hurricane Katrina were welcomed with open arms to their new communities and treated like family.
As the High Holidays approach, and we all make our way back to our respective congregations, some of us may feel inadequate as a greeter. You might think: "Who am I, after all, to be the one to go over and say hello? I barely come to shul anyway." But that may be precisely what a dozen other people are thinking, and in the end, the stranger will remain the stranger, and both you and the shul will have lost out. Let's remember that we are all equally strangers, but at the same time all equally the ba'al habayit when standing before God. What binds us is that we are God's children, and that makes us all brothers and sisters -- mishpacha, family.
Rabbi Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Kehillat Yavneh, and is director of community and synagogue services for the West Coast Orthodox Union.