Parshat Chayei Sarah: “I am a resident alien among you”

We live and act according to the values of Abraham, our forefather. On the one hand, we are “residents”, part and parcel of the wider world, like all other human beings. On the other hand, we are “aliens”, strangers. A special nation. We have a unique Jewish lifestyle.

Rabbi Yehoshua Grunstein is the Director of Training and Placement at OTS’ Beren-Amiel and at Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Programs.

We are part of a world that is much larger than us, but we are still different. We are Jews.  We used computers, smartphones and the like, but we keep them off on the Shabbat, and on holidays. So who are we? Are we part of the big wide world, though we follow certain special dietary rules or refrain from driving on certain days of the year, or are we Jews, outsiders, “oddballs”, people who just happen to be living in this world? Which is wheat, and which is chaff?

I feel that the answer lies in the words of our forefather Abraham, the progenitor of the Jewish people. According to Maimonides Mishneh Torah, (The Laws of Idol Worship a/b and beyond), when Abraham introduces himself to the “People of Het”, seeking a burial spot for his wife, he says: “I am an alien and resident among you” (Genesis 23:4).

I feel that nothing defines a Jew, who aspires to perfection as a human being and as a Jew, better than this ingenious expression: “an alien and resident”.

Abraham is an “alien”. He believes in a single G-d, follows a Jewish lifestyle, and is called Abraham Ha’ivri, “Abraham the Hebrew”, for good reason, as we learn from Bereishit Rabbah, chapter 41: “ ‘… and it was told to Abraham the Hebrew – R. Yehuda said: all the world is one side, Abraham is on the other.” There is no comparison between a person who carefully separates milk and meat, refrains from working on holidays, prays 3 times a day, and abstains from food and drink on fast days, to someone else, whose world doesn’t have any of these things.

Nonetheless, Abraham is also a “resident”. He is part of the landscape, along with all of the nations who lived there at the time. He shares their experiences, such as the war of the four kings against the five kings, the attempt to save Sodom and Gomorrah from annihilation, and more. In other words, had Abraham lived at a time when the world was concerned about “global warming”, he would have recycled paper and plastic, just like all of his neighbors.

Since then, we have been living according to the values of Abraham, our forefather (notably, our Amidah prayer, which we recite three times a day, beings with the words “the G-d of our fathers, the G-d of Abraham…”). On the one hand, we are “residents”, part and parcel of the wider world, like all other human beings. On the other hand, we are “aliens”, strangers. A special nation. We have a unique Jewish lifestyle.

According to Rabbi Avishai David’s book, Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi’s Conversations on the Weekly Parsha (pp. 57-58), Rabbi Soloveitchik asked if Abraham was part of their society, or if his value system clashed with theirs, producing an identity expressed in the phrase “I am an alien and resident among you”, which Abraham used when addressing the people of Het. Rabbi Soloveitchik then suggested that in a certain sense, Abraham was part of them – a resident – since he participated in the local system of trade and industry and paid taxes. In other senses, he was and always remained a foreigner, totally different and separate – an alien.

Indeed, we live from day to day, carrying the same “identity card” we inherited from Abraham. We recite two blessings before the Shema prayer. The first focuses on the wider world, on Hashem as the creator of the world (“… who creates light and darkness… the creator of the lights”), or “and changes the seasons… brings in the nights”), echoing the fact that we are human beings like everyone else. We are part of this world. However, immediately afterwards, we recite the second blessing, which centers on the Jewish people, instead of the entire world (“You have loved us with a great love… who chooses His people, Israel, with love”). This doesn’t concern the rest of the world around us. Rather, it focuses on our unique Jewish community. Only when these two concepts are connected – when we declare that we are part of the wider world (i.e. residents), though we are also a unique part of the global landscape (i.e. aliens), can we truly recite the Shema prayer twice a day, a prayer in which we once again emphasize both ideas.

Rabbi Joshua, the Son of Korhah, states: “Why was the section of “Shema” placed before that of “And it shall come to pass if you listen”?  So that one should first accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and then take upon himself the yoke of the commandments. (Mishna, Tractate Berachot 2:2)

In the “global village” we all live in, I hope and pray that we continue the tradition passed down to us by our forefather Abraham, which teaches us that we must be both residents and aliens. Residents and guests, so that we can have an impact on the wider world, including the Jewish world, and so that we can come before our Maker, once our 120 years are up, and successfully stand trial for our actions during our lives, lives that encapsulate both “residency” and “alienness”.

Rava said: After departing from this world, when a person is brought to judgment for the life he lived in this world, they say to him in the order of that verse: Did you conduct business faithfully? Did you designate times for Torah study? Did you engage in procreation? Did you await salvation? Did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom or understand one matter from another? (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat 31a)

Some of the items on this list are things that all human beings do, while others are uniquely “Jewish”, such as designating times for Torah study, and more. This is the way, the only way, we can eventually approach Hashem and say to Him: “We’ve lived a complete life, the life of a resident and an alien”.


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