Much of the world around us has adopted a narrative and perspective that eludes our understanding. This has been deeply disorienting and confusing for us in the context of the existential battle that the Jewish people is engaged in, both in Israel and in a world inflamed with antisemitism. This has been even more difficult than the challenges we have become more accustomed to facing from the mainstreaming of non-traditional values that have similarly placed the traditional religious community on the defensive, portrayed consistently as archaic and intolerant and as an impediment to the culture that others wish to create.
Is this our unique contemporary experience, living as we do in times of rapid and disorienting change? Maharal of Prague (Gevuros Hashem end of ch. 9) thought otherwise, as he considered this a phenomenon basic and endemic to those who wish to live true and elevated lives. He saw this attitude expressed in the words of our daily Amidah: “To the righteous, the pious, the elders of Your people the House of Israel, the remnant of their scholars, the righteous strangers (geirei hatzedek), and to us, may Your compassion be aroused.” To Maharal, the righteous strangers are part of this listing because,in fact, every moral and pious person whose primary drivers are the Torah’s eternal moral and spiritual values experiences life in this world as a bit of an outsider.
This tension is reflected as well in the dialogue of Avraham with the inhabitants of Chevron (Bereishit 23:4). “I am a stranger and a resident amongst you.” Generations of commentary struggled to understand how one person can characterize himself both as a stranger to and a resident of the same community.
Rav Soloveitchik saw the phrase as reflecting this duality that is the lot of the Jew within society, especially within modern civilization. “Certainly, I am a resident, I am one of you. I engage in business as you do, I speak your language, I take full part in your social-economic institutions. But at the same time, I am a stranger and, in some aspects, a foreigner. I belong to a particular world, one that is completely foreign to you. It is a world in which I am at one with the Creator. It is a world populated by characters unknown to you, with a tradition that you do not understand, with spiritual values that seem impractical in your eyes. It is a world filled with altars and sacrifices, a world of Torah, of lovingkindness, of sanctity and purity.”
Avraham was known as the Ivri, the person who was at odds with the entire world, even as he was beloved and impactful in that world. This is a legacy that we, his descendants, carry. As fully integrated, successful, and appreciated as we may become within the worlds of science, business, government, or medicine, we necessarily maintain our core value system that leaves us independent and apart, and often feeling foreign. We feel that due to our unique values, and we feel that deeply due to our identity as Jews.
We hope and pray for a time when those around us will look to us as Avraham’s contemporaries looked to him. “Nisi Elokim atah b’tocheinu, You are a prince of God in our midst.” “Avraham, we see you as neither a resident nor a stranger. You are amongst us but above us, distinguished by the nobility of your faith, your spirit, and your values.”
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.