Written by Rabbi Robin Sparr and Jo Rothman. Delivered by Rabbi Robin Sparr.
Throughout the Torah, beginning in Genesis, we find stories of migration. Adam and Eve, the very first couple, are cast out from the Garden of Eden; their son, Cain, after murdering his brother, is compelled to wander the earth. Fast forward twenty generations, and we meet Abraham, whose wanderings begin with a call from the Divine to leave everything he’s ever known behind and go to a new place. Throughout his life, he meanders all over the Middle East, sometimes at God’s command, sometimes in search of water. Just like modern day migrants in developing countries, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and his sons are compelled to move around, to seek water or pastures for their herds, and sometimes, to avoid wars or famine.
The story of Jewish migration does not end when our people finally reach the promised land and build the Temple; no, not once, but twice, the people are expelled from the land when the Temple is destroyed. Following the second destruction, the Jewish people spread into the current diaspora, living now at all corners of the globe, driven from one land to another by anti-Semitism, economic factors, wars, and famine.
The story of our wanderings is something we feel to be intrinsic to the Jewish experience, a deeply rooted part of who we are, and it has informed our response to immigration in both scriptural and rabbinic teachings.
Our wanderings as a Jewish people span not only the millennia of Torah, but the millennia afterward; however, my purpose today is not to share a timeline of the Jewish people. It is to remind us of those who wander today.
Earlier, I described the three series of shofar calls – malchuyot, or sovereignty; zichronot, or remembrance; and shofrot, or calls to action. I’d like to use these this morning as a framework for discussing immigration.
Malchuyot is a moment for us to consider our priorities and guiding principles, both individually and as a community. When we reached malchuyot in the shofar service, I invited you to consider the principles that rule or guide you as individuals. At this moment, let us consider the principles that guide us as a community, both within TEMV and as a part of the larger Jewish diaspora.
One of the guiding principles of Judaism is welcoming the stranger. The Torah commands us to welcome the stranger no fewer than 36 times, and reminds us, again and again, that we ourselves were strangers. We are urged to let our own experiences of being the stranger inform our actions toward the strangers among us – we are explicitly commanded, in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, to:
leave gleanings for
treat as equal citizens,
protect the rights of,
and to not hate the immigrant. We are expected at all times to give our help and love freely to all those who need it.
Zichronot, remembrance, provides a moment for us to consider what we carry with us, the people and things that we remember and honor in our lives. We carry the Inquisition, the Holocaust, the pogroms, and those Jews who have immigrated to and tried to assimilate into the current state of Israel from non-western countries such as Ethiopia and Morocco. We carry millions of stories of loss and leaving, of having to start over in a new place, all the way back to Abraham and Sarah. So often, we’ve faced not only trouble at our backs, but trouble when we arrive in a new place. The struggle to immigrate and integrate, but not assimilate, is one our ancestors, and even our grandparents, parents or ourselves, have faced.
I invite us to call upon our compassion and our shared history to recognize the stories of immigrants to the U.S. today as not dissimilar to the stories of Jewish migrations – in fact, contemporary migrations may include our Jewish brethren. Many of those leaving Mexico, and Central and Southern America, as well as those coming from across the sea, are fleeing war, genocide, or oppression, just as we have. Many of them are being smuggled in laundry hampers, waste baskets, and other hiding spots, just as we have. Many of them have had to leave family behind, or lost family members to the very things they’re fleeing – just as we have. Many are children, forced to travel on alone without their parents, just as we, or our parents or grandparents, have.
For reflection: Think about (or talk with a friend or family member about) a time when you didn’t feel at home in an environment that you had expected to be safe or comfortable.
The greatest crisis facing those who’ve come to our southern border is the current policy of family separation, which continues unabated. Children separated from their parents and essentially incarcerated, many of them experiencing abuse at the hands of U.S. federal employees or other detainees, are now exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even those who’ve been reunited with parents are clearly traumatized and are likely to need a lifetime of support to grapple with their experiences.
Many of our parents and grandparents escaped and survived the Holocaust, but they, too, carried their trauma, and in many ways, passed their trauma, guilt, or anger down to their children. Is this the legacy of memory we wish to visit upon those seeking a safe haven today in the land of liberty we now call home?
In Warsan Shire’s poem “Home,” she talks about why people choose to leave home. I would like to share an excerpt of her poem with you:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well
your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into your neck …
…you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
beneath carriages …
…no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire ……
…i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you …
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown, save, be hunger, beg
your survival is more important…
…i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
People are not leaving the homes they’ve known all their lives on a whim. Most asylum seekers are leaving for their own safety or the safety of their families. Many, if they stay or are deported back, face certain death or harm. Others are fleeing their home countries ahead of increasingly uncertain times, hoping to avoid being caught in a crisis. Under such stress, must we not reach out a hand to them?
For many people trying to immigrate here, the U.S. is a beacon of hope – a place where they can live safer and more productive lives than they might have in their home countries. Carolina Paiz, a writer for the television show Orange is the New Black, has written about her childhood in Guatemala and how she spent hours upon hours watching American television shows. In those hours, and long afterwards, she dreamed of coming here, believing beyond a shadow of a doubt that this bright, safe, happy place was where she truly belonged. She writes of a detained immigrant she volunteered with this year who shared those dreams and beliefs, and the thousands upon thousands behind her. People aren’t coming here merely because it’s not the country they came from. They’re coming here because, to many, the United States is a light in the darkness, an oasis of democracy and justice. Many young immigrants have grown up believing firmly in the goodness and fairness of our country. The reality they face when they arrive, then, is all the more jarring and unjust.
Furthermore, much of the rhetoric used against today’s immigrants is the same rhetoric we ourselves have faced – that trouble would follow us, that we would bring disease and crime, that we would take resources away from those already established. We know that the vast majority of our brethren weren’t bringing those problems with us then, and must recognize today’s immigrants aren’t, either. But even if they were, even if we had, our responsibility is to help. The Torah does not offer a qualifier – “you shall not oppress the stranger, unless.” We are told, unequivocally and without reservation, to welcome and honor immigrants, and to do what we can to help them.
We come now to shofrot. The shofrot section arrives near the end of our service, and calls us to take actions in our lives to make our year, and our world, better than last year. At this moment in time, there are so many things in our world that need repairing, both at home and abroad, but one of the most critical is our country’s treatment of the stranger.
Our Torah exhorts us to honor and welcome the stranger, and treat them as we would our own. The Statue of Liberty, symbol of our country, bears Emma Lazarus’s stirring words: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore….” As a country, we are missing the mark. Just this past week, the current administration reduced the immigration number for 2020 from a historic low of 30,000 in 2019 to just 18,000, even though the number of those seeking immigration is at the lowest level in decades. Since January 2017, twenty-eight adults have died in ICE custody, and six children have died this year in the custody of either CBP or ORR. Children and adults alike are frequently held without adequate – or any – food, water, bedding, clothing, or access to hygiene. Children are frequently separated from their parents, and some of them may never be returned to parents who have already been deported. People wait months or years for a hearing, and are often denied despite clear risks if they return to the countries they came from. Workplace raids are becoming larger and more frequent; in August, 680 immigrants were arrested at a Koch Foods plant in Mississippi. Frighteningly, even legal US citizens are being mistakenly detained and held for days, weeks, or even months, and without due process, there is no recourse.
Just a few weeks ago, the Supreme Court upheld a decision by the current administration to deny asylum to those entering the country from Central America. While the decision may be overturned once the case is heard, the Supreme Court’s ruling allows the administration to enforce this policy until the hearing and decision. This ruling further criminalizes people simply trying to survive. Even those trying to flee natural disasters are being denied entrance for even a temporary stay. In the Bahamas, ahead of a devastating hurricane last month, only those with valid visas were allowed to board boats setting sail for the U.S.
Sadly, individuals who are trying to ease the suffering of immigrants are being dissuaded by the government. Good Samaritans who have left food and water in the desert to help stave off death for those crossing are now being brought up on felony charges, theoretically for littering on federal lands. At a time when some of the harmful policies recently put into place are defended as having religious underpinnings, it is ironic that we would prosecute those who try to save a life.
But we have power as individuals and as a community. Shofrot is our call to action. What will we do? What can we do? How can we effect change?
Mother Theresa once said, “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that he will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do, what I can do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us, and we change things.”
Last year, some of you may recall, I spoke about the actions I took part in over the summer – protests, rallies, marches, and a press release. These are all actions that you, too, can partake in.
Additionally, in your books, each of you will find a postcard. These cards, addressed to Nancy Pelosi, urge her in her role as Speaker of the House to fight the current administration policies of family separation and to close the camps. T’ruah, The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, created these postcards and members like myself are disseminating them in our congregations around the country, as part of a campaign to make our, and your, voices heard, and to speak out against the policies that are causing often irreparable damage to immigrants.
With every set of shofar calls, we progress from the old year into the new. We are entering a new year, a new start, and we have the power to make what we want of it. But we are not alone in the universe, and we cannot remain silent as the strangers in our land are oppressed. The Torah tells us that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor, and Maimonides adds that if we destroy one life, it is as if we have destroyed an entire world. It is time for us to take to heart our principles and our individual and communal pasts, and save the worlds of the thousands of immigrants fighting for survival.
R’ Monica Gomery offers us these words as we enter into 5780:
God of transformation, God of teshuva: May this call of the shofar be a bridge between Olam Hazeh, this world, and Olam Haba, the world to come. May this call reaffirm for us that just as we can be transformed in the season of turning, our world too can be transformed.
God of transformation, God of teshuva: May this call blast into our consciousness the possibility of redemption, of an end to the dehumanizing and targeting of immigrants, of a world in which all people find sanctuary, safety, and home.
God who releases the bound, who strengthens the weary: May this call fortify all those impacted, suffering, and targeted by the cruelty of ICE, immigration policy, and the current administration. May this call fortify those who stand, organize, and resist in solidarity with immigrants. May this call fortify our reserves of courage and hope, and lead us toward action.
My friends, I pray you will hear the call to action this year, and I invite you to sign a postcard and return it to the Speaker of the House. If you wish, you may return your signed card to me and I will gladly post it for you.
My friends, I pray you will find your heart opened to renewed compassion, and your spirit invigorated with renewed energy for acts of tikkun olam, repair of the world.
May we enter into this new year in peace, may we be changed by our meditations, and may we so be enabled to engage in the work of changing our world.
Kein y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will.
Shana tova umetukah.
© 2019 Rabbi Robin Sparr and Jo Rothman. May not be reproduced or distributed without written permission.