In 1933, a letter was written by the Orthodox Jewish leadership in Germany. It was addressed to the Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler. The letter was a plea for safety and security, describing the terrible impact that the Nazi laws had caused the Jewish community, and the fear in which the Jews now lived. In pleading their case, the rabbinic leadership, the authors of this letter, attempted to find common ground with the Nazis:
“Marxist materialism,” they wrote, “and Communist atheism share not the least in common with the spirit of the positive Jewish religious tradition… We (too) have been at war against this religious attitude.”
They went on to say that they would accept laws that would limit their autonomy and opportunities. What they wanted was clarity; are the Nazis truly intent on removing Jews from the land, in which case they would leave, or, are those just empty words, campaign slogans meant to curry votes that have no teeth to them, in which case they would happily reside in Germany as second-class citizens.
They did not receive a response.
How naïve. How pathetic. To be groveling at the feet of Adolf Hitler. If only they opened their eyes. If only those leaders took the signs that were all around them seriously. Who knows how many Jewish lives would have been saved.
Tragically, these Jews were blinded by their comfort. Germany was their home. Germany was their “new Jerusalem.” They were so patriotic, so connected to the motherland, that they could not imagine the reality that lay ahead – despite Hitler being abundantly clear about what was in store.
A hundred years from now, history will judge us. Will they say the same thing? How naïve. How pathetic. How could these American Jews miss the writing on the wall? Did they not read the news? Did they not see the pro-Palestinian anti-Semitic protests? Did they not listen to what the intellectuals in all the prominent universities were saying?
In pre-World War Two Germany, the Jewish German community would publish lists of all the Jews killed defending the country in World War One. We too celebrate today the sacrifices of all our veterans, and specifically here in our shul, all our Jewish veterans. It is something we should be proud of. We are all deeply grateful to the veterans in our community for their service. But is that enough to grant us acceptance in this country? Or will our enemies just shrug their shoulders, accuse us of dual allegiances, and lead us once again to destruction?
It would seem that some did learn the lesson of history. I am hearing now more than ever – Is this it? Is it time to go? Should we be packing our bags and making Aliyah en masse?
It’s a good question, but it’s now a new one. It goes back well before our time, well before Nazi Germany, all the way back to the times of Avraham Avinu. As always, there is a lesson, a powerful lesson, that we could learn from our great-great-grandfather.
When Avraham encounters the Chittite people, they describe him as “Nesi Elokim atah b’socheinu, as a G-dly prince among us.” They welcome him as one of their own. But Avraham, perhaps with a premonition of the history that would follow, rejected their embrace. “Ger v’toshav anochi b’to’ch’chem, I am a stranger and a permanent resident among you.”
It’s a strange choice of words; contradictory terms. A stranger and a permanent resident. Which one is it?
Rashi suggests that Avraham was proposing an either/or. I could be a stranger here or a permanent resident. But what Rav Soloveithcik suggests that the terms be read together. What Avraham was conveying to the people, what he was conveying to us, was the nature of being a Jew. We have one foot immersed in society and one foot out the door. We are both a brother and sister to the people of the world and – we are the eternal outsider. We are comfortable, we are citizens, we’ll build houses, and we’ll fight your wars. And – we are wary, we have a packed suitcase, we will never fully settle in. “Ger v’toshav anochi b’to’ch’chem, I am a stranger and a permanent resident among you.” So no, I don’t think we should necessarily leave, but we should, at all times, be ready to do so.
This ger-tsohav identity does not necessarily lead to Aliyah. I would like to remind you that Avraham said those words not in Berlin and not in Baltimore. He said these words in Chevron.
I truly hate to say this out loud, but there is no guarantee that being in Israel will serve us as protection. There is no G-dly promise that the State of Israel will last forever. This was the mistake made by the People of Israel who lived during the times of the first Beis HaMikdash; the Temple cannot be destroyed. Until it was.
To be clear, making Aliyah is amazing; I’m all for it. Israel is the greatest place on earth, the closest you will ever to G-d, a fully-immersive spiritual experience, but a guarantee that we will be safe there? That the state will last forever? If there is one lesson to take from October 7th it is that Ger V’toshav, that sense of insecurity, that sense of vulnerability, needs to exist in Israel as well.
Being a stranger and a resident is not about geography. Avraham was defining our identity for all of time. We are to never get comfortable. We are to always remind ourselves of the fleetingness of life. We are to always transcend our physical existence, not be bogged down by our material wealth, and instead to focus on the spiritual. Until the time of Mashiach we are not to rest – anywhere.
Those rabbis in Germany most certainly failed. They should have acted more ger-like, more stranger-like, and less toshav-like, less attached to their beloved Berlin. They should have packed their bags and left. That’s what I always thought. But I also wonder.
I wonder what would have happened had they taken the opposite approach; recognizing how they did not belong, recognizing how despite their deep patriotism, they were indeed strangers, and yet, leaned into the fact that they were citizens of that country. Call me naïve, but what would have happened if instead of sending a meek letter, the leaders of German Jewry would have called their fellow Jewish citizens to gather in the plaza of the Reichstag? Imagine if the half million Jews would have stood right outside the German parliament and demanded that the government treat them like regular people? Imagine if those men, women, and children, would have made it clear to the German politicians and to leaders across the world that the status quo was unacceptable? Maybe, just maybe our history would have been different.
We are living in a historic moment. We are being reminded of how much of a ger, how much of a stranger we are in this land and in the world, and we need to use this moment to reorient ourselves to what is real and what is eternal. It’s amazing to see the spiritual revival among the Jewish People, here in our shul and everywhere across the globe. But we also need to lean in to being a toshav, we do live here, this is our home. And we need to make our voices heard.
The next generation will analyze what we did in this moment. They will wonder why some people stayed home on Tuesday, why some people went to work. They will wonder how people were doubling down on their comfort and not their spirituality at a time when the truth was so clear. Ger v’toshav anochi. We are strangers and we are citizens.
As strangers to this world, let’s not be held back by how backward people may think we are. Let us pray to our G-d that we believe in from the depths of our soul, let us learn our precious Torah like never before, let us do chesed, let us unite as a People, as a family. And as toshavim, as citizens of this country, on Tuesday, in Washington, DC, let us, each and every one of us, make our voices heard. Because someday soon, ladies and gentlemen, history will judge us too.