My portion is Leviticus, Chapter 25, Behar Bechukotai. In my portion there is a lot of talk about the Jubilee and debt forgiveness. Every seventh year and in the fiftieth year you are not allowed to plant because it is the sabbatical year, a year of sabbath for the land to rest. You have to live off the stuff you made the last year and you let the land rest. Because of the sabbatical year, you are are supposed to be kind and fair in all land sales and dealings every single year, not just once every seven years. The chapter talks about not taking advantage of people especially if they are not doing well. In the jubilee year the land returns to the original owner.
As the Torah talks about jubilee and debt forgiveness and good dealings, it references how you should treat strangers. When discussing a kinsman giving themselves to you as a “slave”, “then you are to treat them well and free them if they have not yet freed themselves by the jubilee year. Resident aliens or strangers, on the other hand, are given many fewer rights. The Israelites were allowed to buy their children or a member of their family and treat them as a slave and they were to remain your property forever.
My big question for this portion is “Why do we often treat strangers badly and what can we do about it?”
In my portion and other sections of the Torah, we are told that we were “strangers in the land of Egypt.” So, actually no person is superior to any other and we are all strangers and must care for one another. Jews believe that when things repeat in the Torah, we know that it is because the point is really important.
The mitzvah of treating the stranger well comes up in the Torah 36 times. In Judaism 18 (which multiplied by 2 is 36) is a special number because it represents life. The mitzvah of treating the stranger well is also special because not only does it show up in the 248 mitzvot aseh --laws of things that you should do, or rather, have to do, but also in the 365 lo aseh--the laws of what not to do such as “do not oppress a stranger”
A problem is that we don’t always treat strangers well. Why is it so hard to treat strangers well? There are three well known commentators on the Torah who can help explain the problem.
One of the commentators name is Ramban, also known as Nachmanides. He lived in the 11th century in Spain and started commentating at a very young age. Ramban points to the verse in the Torah that says,”you should know that when you were strangers in Egypt, I saw the oppression… and I brought punishment upon them… “ Therefore, Ramban says this means, “do not afflict the stranger, thinking there is no one to save him. For he will be helped more than any other person”. Basically, he is saying treat the stranger well because the oppressed always win and because if you don’t God will punish you.
Another famous commentator, Rashi, was born in 1040 in France. Rashi pointed to the verse in the Torah that says,”you know the feelings of the stranger, you know how painful it is for him when you oppress him” Rashi says this that because the Israelites were oppressed in Egypt, so, now the Jews should not oppress others because they know how it feels.
The final commentator that I will be using to explain my portion is Nehama Leibowitz. She is one of the only famous female commentators. She was born in 1905 in Latvia and moved to Israel and lived until 1997. Leibowitz believes that neither Rashi’s nor Ramban’s explanations are correct by themselves but together they work. Following Rashi, she writes that oppression is a circle of abuse.
“the answer to these cycles of abuse,...is to appeal to the intellect and to teach people sensitivity by allowing them to learn the harmful effects of violence through a study of history.”
Leibowitz, however, also thought that some people needed another form of education which draws on Ramban’s teachings: “the only way to break the cycle of violence,...is by shocking such people with the realization that they will pay a high price for taking advantage of the stranger.”
So why do I think we should care for strangers and the poor? The teaching to care for the stranger is still true; it teaches us how to behave in the world.
I think that caring for the stranger is important because we all are strangers. The U.S. is built on Native American land and we came into as strangers and took it. And even before that, humans came into being and were strangers on Earth. Leo Baeck another Jewish commentator, reminds us that the Torah says,”the land is mine; for you are strangers and settlers with me.” (Leviticus 25:23) So all of us are strangers on the land.
I personally connect to Nehama Leibowitz’s teachings the most. When I enter a new place, even when everyone is new, not knowing anybody and being different can make me feel like a stranger. Sometimes being in somebody’s place actually increases the oppression because you want that person to feel how much pain you had to go through. But empathy and the consequences of your actions can make you see clearly.
Because I believe in caring about strangers, for my mitzvah project I chose to learn and teach about caring for immigrants. I first thought about the idea of my mitzvah project when I went to a workshop with my mom about sanctuary and sanctuary cities. Sanctuary cities are cities that won’t comply with ICE which is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If a city is not a sanctuary city, then the local law enforcement help out ICE by reporting people who they think might be undocumented immigrants and detaining them for ICE to question. Sanctuary cities on the other hand do not help ICE with their job. Sanctuaries are places of worship, like synagogues and churches. Law enforcement has not been allowed to enter a sanctuary in the past, so they are good safe havens.
I also went to an Islamophobia workshop. One of the interesting things I learned there is about how to deal with confrontations and how to be an “upstander” instead of a “bystander”.
What I decided to do was to make a learning session about what sanctuary and sanctuary cities are and about how we can help the immigrant community by changing the narrative about immigrants. When I think about the immigrants I know, I think about somebody helping to take care of my grandfather, a friendly loving father, and a family friend. When you hear or think about immigrants, what or who do you think about?
For me, when you care about an issue, it is important to take action. I have written a petition to Governor Charlie Baker urging him to support passing the Safe Communities Act. There is information about my petition in your program. It would be very helpful if people would sign it, especially kids as I believe it will make an even greater impact. I hope to get 500 signatures and to deliver them to Governor Baker in June.
In conclusion, I would like to say some thank yous.
First off I would like to thank Tracy my Bar Mitzvah tutor, she helped me to believe that I could learn my whole portion.
I would like to thank Justin for being a great Hebrew School teacher and all of my past Hebrew School teachers.
I would like to thank my friends for always making me happy.
I’d like to thank my sister for being so full of ideas about everything and always giving my spirit a boost.
I would like to thank my parents, they are always so supportive and loving even though I can be difficult.
Lastly I would like to thank you all for coming.