As we are about to celebrate Pesach, I want to think about a word I associate with the High Holidays. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we repent for our sins and mistakes in the last year, we have a confession called the vidui that uses every letter of the Hebrew alphabet to name a sin or a fault. When the English translators wanted to duplicate this Hebrew acrostic, they did not know what to do with the letter “x”, which does not exist in Hebrew, so they came up with Xenophobia, which is fear of the strange and the alien, fear of the other. At first, people I know mocked this translation, but they don’t mock it any more.

Xenophobia isn’t a joke. There is nothing funny about
fear of the stranger, or ignorance about people who are
different from you, or hatred of the stranger.

In fact, what we’ve learned about our country in these
last couple of years is just how xenophobic many people
in our country are. We’re all immigrants to America,
even the Native Americans came from Asia, but somehow,
certain stripes of immigrants look down on other
stripes. Anyone who’s different from some arbitrary “us”
is an arbitrary “them.”

A recent Bar Mitzvah, David Garsten, saw a book in my
office called Xenocide, a science fiction novel by the famous
writer Orson Scott Card. It’s the third book in a series
that began with the science fiction classic Ender’s Game.
These books explore many ideas and themes, one of
which is how different species interact. In Ender’s Game,
the genius child Ender thinks he is playing a simulation game, but he destroys a species and its civilization. This
evokes not only guilt but also a deep reflection on the
relationship between species. Ender takes the one survivor
of his unintentional extinction, the Hive Queen of these
aliens, to a new planet where he hopes she can start the
species again. On this planet are two other species, one
human, and one smaller human species that look like a
cross between humans and pigs and are referred to as
“piggies.” These piggies have a complicated growth process
that requires a special virus that could spell death to the
regular human species.

After I gave a sermon several weeks ago about democracy
and immigration, David reminded me about an interesting
passage in Xenocide where Ender’s sister Valentine, who
is so brilliant that her ideas change history, comes up
with a grid of how one species relates to another. She
calls the grid a “hierarchy of foreignness.” First, there
are human strangers from our own world. Then, there
are human strangers who live on another world. Then,
there are strangers of another species, who are capable of
communication with us and capable of co-existence with
humanity. So the Hive Queen and the Pig/humans fit
this category. Finally, there are alien life forms that cannot
be communicated with and threaten to destroy all of
humanity and every other species as well. In the book,
the virus that helps the “piggies” grow but is dangerous to humans cannot be communicated with and cannot be
understood. The Starship Fleet is coming to destroy this
virus but in the process will destroy the other species on
the planet, including the pig/humans and the Hive

I want to focus on the hierarchy of foreignness. It feels
very much like the laws of the Torah that, over and over
again, teach us how we should treat people who are
different from us. If there is one sentence that appears
more than any other in the Hebrew Bible, it is: Remember
that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The word
ger means stranger. Moses names his firstborn son
Gershom, because he is a “stranger in a strange land,”
the title, by the way, of another classic science fiction
novel. G-d commands us: Don’t forget what it means to
be a stranger, to be discriminated against, to be oppressed,
to be persecuted, to be on the lowest rung of the hierarchy.

Jewish people know deep in their psyches what it means
to be considered a different species that is deemed so dangerous that we must be exterminated like a diseasecarrying

And so Jewish people care about the ger, the alien, and
the ger toshav, the stranger that lives among us. And as
the victims of xenocide, genocide because others thought
we were strange, we cannot bear it when anyone is –
considered less human than anyone else. We really believe
that everyone, every single human being, is created in
the image of G-d. Everyone is equal.

It sounds so basic, so simple. And yet, we are engaged in
major legal and political and historical conflicts to fight
against those who see human beings who are different
from them as alien, as if they were viruses from other
planets. There is genocide going on right now in different
places on the globe. And xenophobia is all around us,
expressed as various forms of racism.

We don’t live on a planet in outer space. We live here. It’s
our task to counter xenophobia with kindness and xenocide
with action. We don’t live on other planets and we are not
in relationships with other species. And yet, the insights
from science fiction can help us to apply the principles
and ideals of Biblical law in our own time and space.

On this Passover, as we eat the Matzah, the bread of
affliction, and the bitter herbs, let’s remember what it’s
like to be a stranger in a strange land and act accordingly.

Rabbi Scolnic