April 29, 2004
Love the Stranger
Parshat Ahre Mot/Kedoshim (Leviticus 16:1-18:30)
The freeways were quiet and the city seemed peaceful at 4:30 a.m. as I drove to the hospital. I was going to see Thelma before she was taken in for surgery. I thought about the time just over a year ago when Thelma arrived at our house at 3 a.m., tiptoeing in so as not to wake Rachmiel as my husband Jonathan and I slipped out to go to the hospital. My water had broken and our daughter, Kinneret, was on her way.
Thelma has been our children's nanny for four years, and I always thought of her as a member of our family. Then I considered the words of Leviticus 19:34: 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: I the Lord am your God.
It is interesting that the golden rule, "love your neighbor as yourself," is reiterated here with the stranger who resides with you. The verse would make sense without it, however by nestling the positive commandment to love in the center, we realize that it is not enough to act justly toward the stranger who resides with you. It is not enough to pay her on time, treat her with respect. It is not enough to say, "It is as if she is family," or "as one of your citizens." Rather, strive to love.
We were strangers in the land of Egypt, and it turns out, she was, too, for just as God redeemed us with an outstretched hand, God also redeemed her from her own land.
But how can I love her if I don't know her story?
Although Thelma's English is good, I hired a translator and invited her to my office so that I may learn her whole story, the stranger who resides with me.
Thelma spoke of the illness of her 10-month-old son, Carlos, the way he looked at her when he was placed in isolation at the hospital, his angelic face, longing for her to comfort him. He died before she ever held him again. I thought about the day when my son was 10 months old and closed a drawer on his finger. He cried so hard he passed out and his lips turned blue. I now understood better the layered terror that Thelma experienced in reviving him.
When she spoke of the reasons she ran from Guatemala and the journey to full citizenship in America, I felt as if I was hearing the Exodus firsthand.
She told me of the Jewish families she worked with: the family for whom she worked 12 hours a day, who, when her own shoes wore out, bought her a new pair and deducted it from her pay. The family with whom she lived that would lock the house so she could not come "home" and withheld her pay while they enjoyed vacations. And she was never invited to eat with the family.
I filled pages and pages of notes listening to her story.
You shall love the stranger as yourself.
Thelma was in her hospital bed when I arrived. She was in pain and had been diagnosed with ampullary cancer -- cancer of the bile duct. I sat on the edge of her bed.
She took my hands and said she felt in her heart she was Jewish. She had questions about Judaism and months ago I had bought her a basic Judaism book in Spanish, as well as a stack to leave in our synagogue lobby where many nannies wait while their charges are in class.
Just then her cell phone rang, and I was shocked to hear "Hava Nagila" as her ring tone.
She said she did not want to go into surgery without a blessing from me. I lay my hands on her head and recited "Misheberach." She opened her eyes and there were tears in them.
"I had a vision of Jerusalem," she said. "Everyone was wearing white, praying in a great courtyard."
I felt as if I had been blessed by her.
Thelma started chemotherapy last week. Someone said to me, "You should keep her away from your children to protect them from being sad while she is sick."
I couldn't even understand the terrible advice. "The stranger who resides with you ... you shall love [her] as yourself."
Think of the people who "reside with you," who work with you, for you, beside you. Ask them for their stories, and consider not only treating the stranger "as citizens," but how our love can indeed make them strangers no longer.