Rabbinic Reflections: City upon a hill

My grandfather told the story of his escape. The Czar’s army on one side and the Bolshevik revolutionaries on the other, he left his town in Russia in an uncovered wagon. He had to lay flat as bullets whizzed overhead and often lodged in the side of the wagon. Behind him, his neighbors jeered, angry to lose their last remaining tailor. Somehow, he made it to America, greeted by the Statue of Liberty and given an Americanized version of his name, to begin life again free from tyranny.

He was a humble man who knew the value of a good stitch. His attention to detail and strong work ethic led him to a position at Bergdorf Goodman. He worked hard to give the American Dream to his sons. My privilege is a product of that effort.

When the call went out to join in an Interfaith March & Rally to Support Refugees last Sunday, I had to go. I had to go because of my grandfather. I had to go because of my mother’s grandparents whose copper pots from the Old World I still have. I also had to go because my Judaism demands it.

Thirty-six times in the Torah we are enjoined to “love the stranger.” In Hebrew numerology, that 36 times represents two times life. Thirty-six times, more than the number of times we are commanded to love God or mark the Sabbath. Thirty-six times, starting with the very story of the Exodus from Egypt that we are re-reading this month.

I also had to go because my America demands it. John Winthrop declared the Massachusetts Bay Colony would be “as a city upon a hill--the eyes of all people are upon us.” He was referring to Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.” America’s exceptionalism has been to be as Isaiah put it “a light unto the nations.” The torch held by Lady Liberty is a symbol of that light. America’s promise has been built on the immigrant, often the refugee, experience.

Last Sunday was a “Day of Jewish Action for Refugees” established by the refugee organization HIAS. Marches and rallies like the one I attended took place across the country. In Newark, where I was, I could only sense that bridges across faith were being built. There was no great change in our country because of the event, but, on the other hand, there was a great change in me.

I was reminded of my immigrant ancestors. I was reminded of the call to love the stranger. I was reminded of the hope, the light, of the American Promise. By all means, let us be safe, but let us also not shut out our light by slamming shut the doors that opened for us with the best of intentions. After all, the command is to love the stranger, not to fear the stranger. It is love that serves as our light. May it shine from within each of us and, collectively, from us. Remember, “The eyes of all people are upon us.”

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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