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Chayei Sarah - Strangers and Sojouners
Sarah and Yitzchak

Strangers and Sojourners

More on Parashat Chayei Sarah

by John J. Parsons

God's people are "strangers" in this world.  They are literally estranged and live as "resident aliens" -- here, yet not here. Thus Abraham said to the sons of Chet: "I am a 'stranger and sojourner' (גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב) among you; sell me a burial site..." (Gen. 23:4), and King David likewise confessed: "For we are strangers with You, mere transients like our fathers (כִּי־גֵרִים אֲנַחְנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ וְתוֹשָׁבִים כְּכָל־אֲבתֵינוּ); our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope" (1 Chron. 29:15). Life in olam hazeh (this world) is nothing but a "burial site," a graveyard, a shadowy place of passing that leads to olam haba, the world to come, and to God's glorious kingdom.  We cannot find lasting hope in this world and its values; all that must be buried and surrendered to God.

כִּי־גֵרִים אֲנַחְנוּ לְפָנֶיךָ
וְתוֹשָׁבִים כְּכָל־אֲבתֵינוּ
כַּצֵּל יָמֵינוּ עַל־הָאָרֶץ
וְאֵין מִקְוֶה

ki  ge·rim  a·nach·nu  le·fa·ne·kha,
ve·to·sha·vim  ke·khol  a·vo·tei·nu,
katz·tzel  ya·mei·nu  al  ha·a·retz
ve·ein  mik·veh

"For we are strangers before you
and sojourners, as all our fathers were.
Our days on the earth are like a shadow,
without hope."
(1 Chron. 29:15)

Being gerim v'toshavim (גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים), "strangers and sojourners," is inherently paradoxical, however, since a ger (גֵּר) is one who is "just passing through," like a visitor or refugee, whereas a toshav (תּוֹשָׁב) is one who is a resident, like a settler or citizen. Living by emunah (אֱמוּנָה, faith) therefore invariably leads to collision with worldly culture and its values.  Faith affirms that underlying the surface appearance of life is a deeper reality that is ultimately real and abiding. It "sees what is invisible" (2 Cor. 4:18) and understands (i.e., accepts) that the "present form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:31). The life of faith therefore calls us to live as toshavim - sojourners - who are put at an infinite "distance" from the world of appearances. We ache with a divine "homesickness." We lament over the state of this world and its delusions. We gnaw with hunger for love and truth to prevail in the world. And yet this loneliness, this dissonance, this place of suffering "outside the camp" is not without an overarching comfort:

    This slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent (σκηνος), which is our earthly home, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling.
    (2 Cor. 4:17-5:2)

If we are given grace to answer the call of Yeshua to "take up our cross," we presently become ger v'toshav. As gerim we confess that we are strangers in this present world, but as toshavim we believe that our labors are not in vain, and that our true citizenship is in heaven.  Like father Abraham, we live in a foreign land as "strangers and sojourners," looking forward to the City of God (Heb. 11:9-10).

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָבִינוּ מֵעוֹלָם וְעַד־עוֹלָם

ba·rukh  at·tah  Adonai  E·lo·hei  Yis·ra·el  A·vi·nu  me·o·lam  ve·ad  o·lam

Blessed are You, LORD, God of Israel our father,
from eternity to eternity (1 Chron. 29:10).

(Blessing Card)

May His Kingdom come speedily, and in our day, and may the LORD help us live today -- in this world -- as ambassadors and emissaries of the world to come.  Amen.

Note: Of course I don't mean to suggest that we are to be so "otherworldly" that we are no earthly good.  No, but many of us are so "this-worldly" that we are of no heavenly good! The direction must be first toward heaven, and then back to earth ("seek ye first the kingdom...").  We surrender to God and then receive back our lives to reengage the world.  "Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone; but if it dies, it brings forth fruit" (John 12:24). Life in this world must be "mediated" by the presence of God through our faith in Him.  Only then are we able to care for the world as God's emissaries.

The Warning of Reformed Judaism


The German "Reform movement" (Haskalah) began in the mid-nineteenth century. The goal of the movement was presumably to "enlighten" Jews and to help them assimilate into German culture. The structure of synagogue service was altered to resemble German Lutheranism (with organ music, men and women sitting together, etc.), and German - not Hebrew - became the language used in the liturgy.  In addition, secular study and a "higher critical" understanding of the Scriptures was encouraged, and Jews were instructed to stop living isolated lives within the "ghettos," but rather to integrate as "full members of German society."  This approach later culminated in the "motto" of the Reform movement: "Berlin is Jerusalem" (see the "Christian" corollary here). In other words, Berlin was just as good as Jerusalem, and the ideals of the Promised Land, the Torah, and the ultimate destiny of the Jewish people became allegorized (and therefore of merely symbolic significance). 

Tragically, it took the horrors of World War II and the rise of the Nazis to reveal to the German Jewish community that they were not regarded as true "citizens" of Germany. The reformed Jews of Germany had focused so much on being "residents" of land that they had forgotten that they were first of all "strangers and exiles on the earth" (Heb. 11:13).

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