Remember that you were once a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day. – Deuteronomy 5: 12-15 (NRSV, adapt.)
On the last full day of my family’s New York vacation, we spent the whole day in Manhattan. We visited the Sony Technology Museum on Madison Avenue, and the American Girl Doll Store on Fifth Avenue, and then went uptown to have dinner with my Uncle on the Upper East Side. We ordered pizza and shared an expensive cake that had been given to us for free because we happened to be passing by when a delivery boy accidentally dropped it on the sidewalk. (It was still in the box, so it was clean, just messy.)
Afterwards, we drove across the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn, where we were renting an Airbnb apartment for the week. As we came off the bridge, a transformation occurred. Here there were only a few stores open and only a few people on the street: small groups of maybe two or three men walking together, dressed in long black coats and cylindrical fur hats. Most had beards; all had the long curled sidelocks that are the mark of an observant Hasidic Jew. And most remarkably, none of them seemed to be in a rush.
It was Friday evening, and Sabbath had begun.
The day before, we had taken our kids on the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty. In the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, there is a museum, and in that museum, there is a glass case containing a hundred-plus years of Statue-themed souvenirs. Among these artifacts, there is a Menorah, an eight-armed candelabra used during the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah. Each of the menorah’s arms is a small figure of the Statue of Liberty, her arm uplifted to hold the candle.
The man who made that menorah was a German-born Jew, named Manfred Anson. Anson was a teenager when the Nazis came into power. Leaving his parents behind, he managed to escape the country, travelling first to Australia, and then to the United States. Anson’s brother died in a Nazi concentration camp, but his sister survived, and the two of them were eventually reunited in America.
I thought of Anson’s menorah, as we drove through Brooklyn on Friday evening, past the men on their way home for Sabbath. And I wondered at the meaning that the Statue of Liberty must have had for Anson, and for the hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants who sailed into New York harbor, to be welcomed by her strong hand and outstretched arm.
On one level it seems like it would be almost sacrilegious, to incorporate such an iconically American figure into an ancient Jewish ritual. But the celebration of Hanukkah, the celebration of Passover, the celebration of the Sabbath, all of these are rituals of remembrance. They are the means by which Jewish families teach their children the story of their deliverance. Maybe the Statute of Liberty helped Anson to remember his.
You shall not oppress the alien who dwells among you; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in Egypt. – Exodus 23:9 (NRSV, adapt.)
The practice of Sabbath traces its origins to the Biblical book of Exodus, to the commandments given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. On the Sabbath, God tells Moses, the people of God are to refrain from all work; not only that they may take rest, but also so that they may give rest to others. You have six days to work, God says, but on the seventh day, rest from your work, so that your ox and your donkey may find relief, and your servants and even the aliens living among you may be refreshed.
In the midst of the Sabbath, in the midst of this intimate family celebration, God reminds the people to show compassion to the foreignors in their midst – for, as God reminds them, “You know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” If the core story of our faith is a story of deliverance, then the core practice of our faith is the practice of hospitality. The two go hand in hand. We welcome the stranger, for we know what it is to be strangers in a strange land.
My own ancestors didn’t sail into New York Harbor. They sailed into Massachusetts Bay. William Knapp arrived from England in 1630, aboard the same fleet as Jonathon Winthrop, the first governor of the newly formed Massachusetts Bay Colony. And those of us who are not first- or second- but twelfth-generation immigrants, sometimes forget to remind our children that we, too, were once aliens in a strange land. There’s been a lot of conversation in the news about Donald Trump’s suggestion that we should deny citizenship to what he calls “anchor babies.” But the truth is, that every Mayflower descendent is descended from an “anchor baby” – a child born on American soil to uninvited foreign-born parents. It seems that somewhere along the way, some of us have forgotten the stories of our deliverance.
But today is our Sabbath. So today, let us remember. Let us remember the ancient stories of Israel’s deliverance, and let us remember the stories of our own deliverance. And, having been guided into port at last by God’s strong hand and uplifted arm, let us in turn take up the torch, to shine that light for all to see.
(Excerpted from a sermon preached 9/6/2015 at Belchertown United Church of Christ)
(Photo credits: Statue of Liberty – Liza Knapp; Menorah – Smithsonian Museum of American History