After you

While lost in the once familiar New York City, Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos found two women who offered guidance and protection to the wandering stranger.

“You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” (Deuteronomy 10:19).

Some years ago, on my way to visit friends, I found myself lost in New York City in the Morningside Heights neighborhood. Once, when I lived on Long Island, I traveled in and out of this city daily. This time, I arrived from Louisville, Kentucky, and was no longer at home in the metropolis. I had taken a flight, a train and, finally, a taxi to a destination I thought I would recognize. I was wrong and asked the driver to let me off at a corner I believed I’d recognize. When I stepped out, however, I had no idea where to turn.

It was early evening and already dark. I walked into a small grocery store, where the person at the counter shook his head when I showed him the address. I was not eager to leave the store and go out into the dark streets in an unfamiliar neighborhood. A woman who had finished her shopping noticed my hesitation and asked if I needed help. I mentioned the address of my destination. “I don’t know where it is either,” she said, “but my friend and I live right here and can walk with you. It isn’t safe for you alone out there. Maybe we’ll meet someone who can show you the way.”

I followed them outside, and the two women accompanied me on the sidewalk. They asked me where I was from, telling me about family and acquaintances they had in Louisville. It took some time. We talked about this and that as we walked back and forth, asking several people passing by if they knew where I should be going. The two showed great interest in my country of origin. Clearly, though, they were in it with me until I had found my destination. Two women of a different race guarded and guided this White person, originally from another continent, until we found someone who could point the way. It was not far, and with the women at my side, I reached my hosts unharmed.

Such an ordinary story. An ordinary story that has always taken up extraordinary space in my memory. Here were two who had no call to extend a helping hand to one who did not belong in their neighborhood. They showed this stranger, who did not share their class or race, neighborliness and hospitality on a large scale. They offered protection and guidance when I needed it as a stranger. It seemed to them the most ordinary thing to do. No big deal. Sure, we’ll walk with you. It isn’t safe here for you alone. A neighborly act toward someone who was not their neighbor.

The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, and before him Martin Buber, argued that availability to the other constitutes a moral life. For Levinas, the first words of the morally lived life are “me voici,” in Hebrew hineyni, “Here I am,” showing oneself accessible to the other. Levinas suggested that the entirety of his philosophy could be summarized in the words “After you!” To his thinking, it is not so much a matter of doing something as of orienting oneself to the other, from a desire to know the heart of the stranger.

Most of us know about love for the neighbor as one of the great commandments. According to the gospels, it was one of the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-37). We may know that this requirement originates in the Hebrew Bible, part of the Holiness Code of Leviticus (Leviticus 19:17-18). All the teachings in this section flow from the mandate for the people to be “holy” because the Holy One, their God, is holy. Loving the neighbor as one loves the self is one way to mirror God’s holiness in the community.

Loving the neighbor as one loves the self is one way to mirror God’s holiness in the community.

There is another requirement in Leviticus 19, perhaps less familiar:

“When a stranger lives with you as a stranger in the land, you must not wrong them. As a native among you shall the stranger be, who lives as a stranger with you. And you shall love them as you love yourself,  for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Holy One, your God” (Leviticus 19:33-34).

The repeated reference to the stranger makes two demands: one negative, not to wrong; and one positive, to love them as you love yourself. In Leviticus 19, the stipulations progress from loving neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) to loving the stranger. In the Gospel of Luke, the identity of neighbor and stranger are conflated in the parable of the Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) who represents both a neighbor, descendant of Abraham and Sarah, and a stranger, one who is different, who comes from another neighborhood, not like us. Different customs, and different accents probably, making it difficult for the Jews to be around him. Strangers are okay, we may think, if they stay in their place, as long as they don’t cross our path with their needs and demands. If they stay out of our hair.

The burden of the instruction in Leviticus is that it requires attention for the stranger “who lives with you,” people who face us with their needs. The Bible grounds the rule for life with strangers in Israel’s own experience: for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20; 23:9; Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19). The prescription in Exodus specifies this identification as a knowledge of the heart or being (Hebrew: nephesh) of the stranger (Exodus 23:9). There is no ethical requirement cited as frequently in the Torah as the posture and behavior toward the stranger, occurring in all the law codes. They range from prohibitions against wronging them, to the requirement to provide for their well-being, as well as their inclusion in ritual and religious celebrations. All the teachings find their culmination in the directive to love.

Strangers are okay, we may think, if they stay in their place, as long as they don’t cross our path with their needs and demands. If they stay out of our hair.

The fact that the community emulates divine inclination by loving the stranger is powerfully articulated in Deuteronomy:

For the Holy One your God is God of Gods and Lord of Lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who does not lift the face, and takes no bribe, doing justice for the orphan and widow, and loving the stranger by giving them food and a coat. And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 10:17-19).

The radical demand of love for the stranger is here embedded in the declaration of God’s awesomeness. The greatness of God manifests itself in love for the stranger, a love expressed concretely in the gift of food and clothing.

This is a crucial requirement, not only for the life of ancient Israel, but for communities who consider themselves inheritors of this sacred text. What begins with extravagant praise for the awesomeness of God moves to an extravagant demand made of the community that receives these words. But, we may ask, who are these strangers? It a question also asked in both the Old and New Testaments. A common rendering for the Hebrew word in standard English translations of the Bible is “alien” or “resident alien.” This identification creates the impression that the concern is limited to people from another country who were living with the Israelites, with or without proper documentation. The label “resident alien” is a product of the nation-state, which is a concept that arose in the late 18th and 19th centuries, one that does not fit the Biblical social context. The word “stranger” fits the category insofar as it indicates persons who did not belong, who may indeed have come from a different ethnic group, but who may also have been from a town or tribe a few miles away. The stranger can be the one from outside the clan, the tribe, or the entire people, the one who has come to stay with the community. An Ephraimite could be classified as a “stranger” in the tribe of Benjamin (Judges 19:16). In today’s terms and American culture, they can be from another country, one of the many displaced people who are dispersed across the globe, in desperate straits, whose survival hangs by a thread. They can also be the woman from Louisville, who has lost her way in New York City and needs help from those who are at home there. The need can be huge, demanding lots of resources over an extended period, or it can be small and immediate. The presence of the stranger puts special obligations on the community, insofar as she may not share the rights and privileges of the in-group. Strangers are those who are not at home, who lead unstable lives, socially and psychologically, who lack safety.

The greatness of God manifests itself in love for the stranger, a love expressed concretely in the gift of food and clothing.

In our world, people of privilege, who have their needs met and are at home, may believe they know what others in less-secure circumstances need. A more helpful starting point may be awareness of our ignorance and of our need to listen to what strangers tell us. Theologians and philosophers of our era propose the notion of attention as a key concept to opening ourselves to the experiences and the needs of other people. The goal of the attentive way of being is to see the other person justly, honestly and compassionately. Love, says Iris Murdoch in her book, The Sovereignty of Good, “is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” C. Fred Alford, in After the Holocaust: The Book of Job, Primo Levi and the Path to Affliction, observes that attention makes the world a sacred place, and that paying attention is one of the “simplest, most awesome and respectful acts we can undertake.” According to Alford, paying attention to the needs of the stranger opens a pathway to the experience of the divine.

I spent my early years under German occupation in The Netherlands in circumstances where those who once felt they belonged were hunted from hearth and home as outcasts, created into strangers who were no longer welcome, but were, rather, marked for destruction. I have written elsewhere of the tragic consequences that befell one of our neighbors, of the heroic acts of securing survival for the most vulnerable by those who paid attention. On a recent visit to my home country, I listened to a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust in Amsterdam tell her story on the day The Netherlands remembers the World War II. She told about her life as a baby, then as a small child, protected by those who paid attention to her, of individuals and families — links in the chain that guaranteed her survival and that of her mother and grandmother. At times, that’s what it takes, particularly when circumstances are dire and needs are all-consuming. In a community center in Amsterdam, the survivor made me aware anew of the miracle created when attention grows from the soil of love for the stranger. Probably, the people involved in saving this Jewish family in the hellscape created by the Shoah did not have to reflect long on what action to take. They were the kind of people who had disposed themselves to taking care of the stranger who was in their neighborhood, on their doorstep.

In our world, people of privilege, who have their needs met and are at home, may believe they know what others in less-secure circumstances need.

“Who is my neighbor?” asks the expert in the Torah in Luke’s story (Luke 10:25-37). Each new age needs to find ways of understanding what it means to love the stranger as one loves the self.  On October 26, 2018, the Bethel Church in The Hague, The Netherlands, opened its doors to begin nonstop worship services. They were held to protect the presence of an immigrant family, originally from Armenia, residents of The Netherlands for nine years, who were threatened with deportation. The action resulted in more than three months – almost 23,700 hours – of services, with pastors and visitors from all over the country and the world, from many denominations and traditions. It ended with a permanent- residency permit for the family and changes in governmental regulations regarding asylum. The Torah faces the believing community with abiding demands that flow from the continual nature of God, who is turned to the creation with grace and devotion. The two markers of the stranger laws – “not to oppress,” and “to love” – anticipate our putting them into action. Perhaps the opportunity awaits in our communities, or within the walls of our sanctuaries, or right outside our doors, on the sidewalk of busy cities.

Translations of the biblical texts in this article are by the author.