A Stranger In God’s Country

A Stranger In God’s Country

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light.”

Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 7:42 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 25:1-26:2
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27
Havdalah: 8:46 p.m.

During the Jubilee, all land is returned to the original owner. Someone who bought the land that now had to be returned might feel disenfranchised, a stranger, in a sense, from land once considered his own: “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me” [Leviticus 25:23].

It had taken the Jewish 20th-century philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, to note that Western philosophy’s attitudes to the “stranger,” often based on the Bible, are actually a misreading. For example, Psalm 119: “I am a stranger in the land; do not hide Your commandments from me.” What Western philosophy has done, Levinas points out, is remove the verse from the context of the Torah’s literary tradition. Paradoxically, though the Western attitude to the “stranger” is framed in terms of loneliness and the negative, one comes away with a soothing sense of empathy with the entire human condition, as if every stranger’s grievance was the same. If the stranger is “just like me,” then the ego is flung back on itself.

However, in the Bible there are two terms for stranger: ger, an expression for the disenfranchised, and ger v’toshav (the term used in Lev. 25:23), a new immigrant on the way to becoming a citizen or a righteous proselyte, converting for no other motive than “My Name’s sake,” casting his or her lot with the Jewish people. The ger v’toshav is a shifting status, not undergoing alienation so much as taking preparatory steps toward real connections according to principles of a sophisticated responsibility.

In 1993, while in Paris, I phoned Monsieur Levinas, and his reaction illustrated the difference. At first he responded that he was too busy but, learning that I was a stranger in town, he invited me over straightaway. Opening the door, he scanned my face as if reading sacred text. “Ah! A young woman! You come to me as a stranger. I welcome you, not because you are like me, but because you are different. Accepting the face of the stranger is accepting one’s responsibility for what is different, what is not totally comfortable, receiving the face of God.”

In Psalm 119, “I am a stranger in the land. Do not hide from me Your commandment,” says Levinas, is a poetic reprise of the previously mentioned text from this week’s Torah reading: “The land cannot be alienated [sold off to strangers] forever — for Mine is the land.” Strangers you may be, but you are on the road to becoming ‘strangers and residents’ [ger v’toshav] with Me.” In other words, because you keep my commandment concerning reversion of the land, your status is changing from strangers to settlers who share with Me.

Ramban puts it this way: “Don’t resent the laws of land reversion. While you may think that by accepting my laws you are disenfranchised, in fact, just as when you were your own master and the law applying to the Jewish landowner bid you share the same standard of living as you enjoyed with your family and your people with the ger v’toshav, the same law applies to God, the original owner, to whom the land has reverted…. You will discover that ‘you are with Me’ — it is enough for the servant to be with his Master.” Just as, when it is yours, you make room for my law, when it is Mine, it is yours. The Master/servant bond essentially is reciprocal.

“In the Jubilee year you shall return everyone to their possession” [Lev. 25:13]. Jews are intrinsically not for sale to any master, and the same holds true for the land. Ultimately there is a sense that we all are sacred property. Ramban goes further. He says that if we are bound by an agreement, then God is, too.

Applying the kabbalistic notion of God’s voluntary self-estrangement by drawing parallels with the particular wording “unto Me,” in the verses “unto Me is the Land” [Lev. 25:23] and “that they take unto Me an offering” [Exodus 25:2], Ramban makes reference to a Midrash in which God transforms Himself into the perfect stranger, the ultimate object: “Can you conceive of a transaction in which the seller is sold with his goods! God said to Israel, I have sold you My Torah but with it I have also been sold. For as it says, ‘That they take Me — an offering’ [Exodus 25:2]. When they accept My Torah, it is Me, Myself, that they take.” This is the kind of belonging that transforms an alienated existence into the Holy Land.

As I was about to leave, Monsieur Levinas said, “You came to me as a stranger. Return as a friend.”

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light” and “Jewish Folk Art.” She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement and Partisan Review.

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