Faith over Fear: Choosing Unity over Extremism

During the interfaith pilgrimage walk on Sunday, December 20 from WHC to Washington National Cathedral to the Islamic Center, Rabbi Lustig spoke from the steps of the National Cathedral. We are honored to share his inspiring remarks.

We gather this day, a mixed multitude of race, creed, and gender. We are young, and we are old. We are rich, and we are poor. We are the dignity of difference. We are America. Yet, common to each one of us is a shared heritage that rejects bigotry, that has no tolerance for intolerance, for we are people who choose faith over fear. We will not let hate enter our hearts; we will not build walls on our borders. Nor we will allow politics to divide us, for as it is written on the Statue of Liberty, it is upon our hearts: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Today, we lift the lamp of liberty. We will heed the biblical injunction to welcome the stranger and not oppress the stranger among us. We will not close our borders to the war-torn refugees of Syria. We will not shun them. Rather, we will welcome them.

Nor will we allow fear mongers to oppress those among us. Not one of us will be registered because of our faith: not Muslim, Christian, or Sikh; not Buddhist, Jew, Hindu, Jain, or Zoroastrian. To single out one of us is to denigrate all of us.

Our common ancestor, Abraham the sojourner, opened his tent to the stranger and so will we. Moses led a nation into exile. No less than 36 times does the Torah command, “Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Why should you not hate the stranger? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes:

“It is terrifying in retrospect to grasp how seriously the Torah took the phenomenon of xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. It is as if the Torah were saying with the utmost clarity: reason is insufficient. Sympathy is inadequate. Only the force of history and memory is strong enough to form a counterweight to hate.

Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart as I once fought the greatest ruler and the strongest empire in the ancient world on your behalf. I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the color of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

I am a first-generation American. I am the child of a Holocaust survivor. My mother, at age nine, was told to wear a yellow star on her clothes so she could be recognized as the stranger, even though her family had lived in her hometown in Germany for more than 400 years. She was lucky. She was given refuge here in America, and I was given life. Every refugee is grateful, and we should be grateful to them as well. There are over 100,000 foreign-born men and women who serve in our armed forces this very day defending our homeland.

The refugees we have welcomed have given us the Theory of Relativity (Albert Einstein), Google (Sergey Brin), Intel (Andrew Grove), and Yahoo (Jerry Yang). Opening our shores brought us Joseph Pulitzer, the journalist; I.M. Pei, the architect; and Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court justice. Without welcoming the stranger, we would have neither a “White Christmas” nor “God Bless America,” for we would have shunned Irving Berlin and the opportunity to bring his gifts to bear in America. Remember to welcome the stranger, for you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.

We believe in faith not fear. I lift my lamp so that we may see from sea to shining sea America – the beautiful America – the land where strangers are welcomed with open arms and open hearts.

At the fire of our faith, let courage be kindled that we may live as we pray. So that, unashamed, we may transmit to generations to come an America better than ours; an America of love, dignity, and hope for the stranger in all of us! Hear our prayer, oh God! Amen.