"A Stranger and a Resident"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

 

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Hakarat Hatov L’Hakadosh Baruch Hu

For all the Chessed He Has Bestowed Upon Us

Ma Ashiv L’Hashem Kol Tagmilohi Alai

Mishpachat Katlowitz

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Adapted by R. Eliyahu Blumenzweig

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

Rashi offers two interpretations of Avraham's words to the children of Chet, "I am a stranger and resident (ger ve-toshav) with you" (Bereishit 23:4). According to the literal meaning of the text, Avraham is saying that in the past he was a stranger "from a different land, and I settled (nityashavti) among you." The other interpretation, based on the midrash, is:

 

"If you are agreeable [to my request for a burial plot], then I am a stranger; if not, I will be a 'toshav' (resident), and I will take it by right, for God has told me, 'to your descendants I shall give this land' (Bereishit 12:7)."

 

According to both interpretations, the expression "ger ve-toshav" includes two contrasting terms that seem to contradict one another. However, the simple meaning of the text seems to indicate that there is some connection between them, and they can co-exist.

 

In order to understand the relationship between these two concepts, we must examine them on two different levels: one concerns the relationship between Avraham, the Hebrew, and the other people of the world; the other concerns the relationship between Am Yisrael and the other nations of the world.

 

When Am Yisrael was in exile, at times it wished to integrate into the surrounding society. However, even when this was indeed achieved, it was accompanied by a sense of "foreignness;" despite the integration there remained a barrier separating Jews from their neighbors. In Israel, however, Jews feel like “residents;” the sense of foreignness, of being strangers, is less tangible. The inhabitants of the land of Israel possess a sense of belonging which the surrounding nations do not succeed in shaking.

 

However, there is another level on which the relationship between the sense of "sojourning" and the sense of "foreignness" must be expressed, and that is on the personal level, as expressed in the connection between an individual and the reality that surrounds him.

 

On the one hand, a person naturally feels part of the world around him. Halakha addresses this connection, instructing a Jew as to the path that he should follow and the actions that he should undertake vis-à-vis the various manifestations of reality. This includes everything from his relationships with peers, to his relationship with his spouse, to his attitude towards every tiny detail of Creation.

 

On the other hand, a person has to know that he is a "stranger" in the world. It can be difficult to live with this knowledge, especially if one is successfully integrated in the world and one’s material pursuits are flourishing. A person who experiences setbacks and defeats in all his endeavors will not find it difficult to feel himself a "stranger.” But if everything goes smoothly for a person, and his path in life takes him from one success to the next, it is difficult for him to sever his bond with the reality of this world, which gets stronger by the day. This bond arises not only from the person's subjective consciousness, but also from reality itself: the works of Creation, bursting with life, invite man to eat of their fruit and to satisfy himself with their goodness.

 

Despite this – and specifically for this reason – a person must consciously adopt a sense of foreignness. He must know that even his integration into the most practical aspects of life is necessary in order to be able to achieve a higher spiritual level. The reality is nothing but a means. The end, the aim, is to attain "that day" when "God will be One, and His Name will be One" (Zekharia 14:9). When a person feels, with his entire being, that this is his goal and purpose in life, then he is able to sense his "foreignness" in this world – not out of scorn for the world, nor in an attempt to remove himself from it, but rather out of his integration into it as a means to attain a higher goal – "that day.”

 

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Chayei Sara 5732 [1971].)