Welcoming The Stranger
Billy Wilder, legendary Hollywood writer and director of such classics as “Sunset Boulevard” and “Some Like it Hot” was a refugee who left Germany for Paris as the Nazi party gained power. He made it briefly to America but had to leave and reapply. Wilder told the story of coming to the American Consul in Mexico, desperate to return to the U.S.
Wilder knew that many waited for years, others were never admitted. He was terrified. He explained that he had almost no documentation because it was all left behind.
The Counsel asked him, ‘What do you do?’
‘I write movies,’ said Wilder.
‘Is that so?’ said the counsel. They stared at each other for a long time.
Finally the Counsel stamped his passport and said, ‘Write some good ones.’
In a thousand small acts, an individual shows his heart and a nation shows its character. In a world that is driven by fear many open hands have closed into fists. Let us remember how important it is to also believe in the possibility of goodness and the power of welcoming the stranger.
Does God Take Checks?
We live in an age of unprecedented wealth. Do we therefore live in an age of unprecedented charity?
Many studies have demonstrated that paradoxically, rich people give a much lower percentage of their income to charity than poor people. As wealth accumulates, giving does not usually follow suit. There are exceptions of course; but the rule seems to hold.
For many people giving is a numbers game. Their livelihood will not be affected no matter how much they give. It is a matter of numbers on a page or a screen. Yet the psychological obstacles to generosity are real. Many who could give don’t simply because they feel an inexplicable sense of loss when giving away money they could easily spare.
“We have never seen nor heard of an Israelite community that does not have a charitable fund,” wrote Maimonides in the middle ages. Tzedakah is central to Jewish life. Or to put it in a story: Once a wealthy Jew came before God after death. God asked, “I gave you so much. Why didn’t you give more to tzedakah?” The man answered, “Here, tell me what to give to — I’ll write a check!”
“I’m afraid not” God said. “Up here, we only accept receipts.”
Decisions Shape Destiny
Why does the Torah so often tell the tales of siblings? From Cain and Abel, the Genesis stories and on to Moses and Aaron, we are being told something important about human nature.
Ultimately, our lives are shaped by our choices. Yes there are differences in families and circumstances; some people undoubtedly have a much more difficult road than others. Yet the Torah teaches that even when people grow up in the same family and have similar experiences and opportunities, who they become is who they choose to be.
Everything, says the Talmud, is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven. In other words, your moral character and decisions are not a product of your environment but of your will. This is a message of empowerment. You can overcome the most difficult challenges if you believe in your own ability to forge your destiny.
Every human being is made in the image of God. Whether we honor that image or sully it, however, is not God’s choice. It is ours. We do not choose the blessings we inherit, but we do choose the blessings we become.
Poets, Martyrs, and Memory
Identity is largely memory. When asked who we are, we respond with the past — I am someone who was born here, worked there, is tied to this family and community. A painful effect of Alzheimer’s is that in wiping out memory, it erases identity as well.
What is true for individuals is true for a people. Jewish identity is shaped by Jewish memory. The less we know about who we were, the less we understand who we are.
Jewish memory includes tragedy of course, but there is much more to our tradition than catastrophe. We have been badly hurt, but we have also been greatly blessed. The faith, music, art, teaching, law, and legends of the Jewish people are integral to our self-understanding. We place a great emphasis on remembering the holocaust, and rightly so. But to remember tragedy and neglect Torah is to have a distorted identity as a Jew. Judaism is not solely what has been done to us; Judaism is far more what we have done. Our poets speak as loudly as our martyrs; if you would know who you are, listen to all the voices, and remember them.