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Parashat Kedoshim

April 27, 2011

By Rabbi Maralee Gordon

We learn from Rabbi Akiva that the greatest principle in the Torah is V’ahavta l’reyakha kamokha– Love your fellow as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).  That teaching is found in this week’sparashah, Kedoshim, part of the Holiness Code.  Sometimes we stop reading at that point in the text; after all, that’s the pinnacle-or is it?

A story:  When I learned that immigrants were being detained by the federal government in the county jail two miles from my home in Woodstock, Illinois, I applied to be a member of the interfaith ministry allowed in to provide pastoral counseling to these detainees once a week.  I was propelled by my innate sense of being the child of immigrants, even though both of my grandmothers were born in Chicago.  We all tell the story of where our families came from, why they left, how they got started in this country.  I have a poster photograph of Maxwell Street ca. 1905 in which you can read the name Barnett on the awning of the butcher shop owned by my great grandfather.  This sense of being from somewhere else instills in us compassion toward those who come here today by whatever means they need to in order to make a better life for themselves.

Over the nearly two years I have been involved in this ministry I have heard stories from grown men who came here from Mexico as young children and are facing deportation to a place they have no memory of.  Recently I “communicated” with a teenager from Somalia who had the courage to get on a plane to come to this country to go to college, knowing no English. I know just a smattering of Arabic.  I shared with her my total Arabic vocabulary:  Salaam Aleikum (to which she answered Aleikum Salaam) and Rukh min hon (run away from here [which I learned how to say to young boys in Bethlehem in 1968, who were trying to sell us tchochkes]) at which she laughed.  That was a month ago, and since then her English has increased exponentially due to the tutelage of a sister detainee from Poland.  That education is the silver lining to the months she faces in detention until her case is resolved, due to the tremendous backlog in the immigration justice (sic) system.

Last winter my co-counselors told me there was a woman from Israel in the group, and I sat down to talk with her.  She had come from East Jerusalem eight years before to visit an uncle and had met and married a man from the West Bank who had a long-term work visa.  Three children and six years after her visa had expired, she was torn from her family and placed in detention to be deported.  She had never been separated from her children, the youngest of which was barely two years old.  She was distraught, not eating, not sleeping.  I met with her over several weeks, called the Israeli Embassy, talked with her Immigration case worker, and could do nothing about her situation.  Before she was deported, we exchanged phone numbers, and she called me from her parents’ home in Beit Hanina, to find out when I was coming to visit.  Two weeks later, during a visit to my son and his family in Ramat Gan, Sareen and her brother picked up my husband and me from the bus station in Jerusalem and took us to her parents’ apartment for a feast of gratitude. Gratitude for what?  For compassion, for relating to Sareen on a human-to-human level.  For treating the sojourner as the citizen.

Compassion expressed to the Other, experiencing those not like ourselves as indeed like ourselves – and treating them accordingly – this to me is the ultimate message of the Holiness Code, found in verses 34-35 of chapter 19:  “If sojourners dwell with you in your land, do not oppress them.  The sojourner that dwells with you shall be to you as the citizen.  You shall love them as yourself, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt, I am Adonai your God.”  The obligation to love the sojourner/stranger/resident-alien occurs thirty-six times in the Torah, and is the object lesson of our observance of Passover.  We did not sit down at our sedarim ten days ago to celebrate our victory over our oppressors and our liberation from slavery and leave it at that.  Ki gerim heyitem-“since you were sojourners/strangers/resident-aliens,” you will treat with compassion and provide aid to the sojourners/strangers/resident-aliens among you.  We remember our roots of oppression and wandering in order to reach out to the Other.  This is the pinnacle – this is what it means to be Kedoshim – holy.


Rabbi Maralee Gordon, AJR 2001, serves two Illinois congregations, McHenry County Jewish Congregation in Crystal Lake, and Congregation Beth Shalom in DeKalb.  In addition, she chairs FaithBridge Interfaith Alliance of Northern Illinois and helps coordinate the Immigrant Detainee Pastoral Ministry at the McHenry County Jail.