Friday, February 17, 2012

Torah Thoughts: Immigration and Jewish values-Parashat Mishpatim

Parashat Mishpatim
On this Shabbat we embark upon an experimental idea to enhance our congregation’s Shabbat Morning experience. Tomorrow morning we inaugurate the Hot Topics Shabbat. Besides the fellowship of a little nosh and an abbreviated worship service, we intend to engage our congregants in a different kind of study and discussion. Rather than diving into the sea of commentaries, we will use the Torah portion as a jumping off point to discuss provocative and challenging issues in the public domain.  Can Torah values enlighten our understanding about controversial topics today?  Do contemporary politics determine our religious values or do our religious values inform our view of society’s most vexing problems?
Tomorrow morning we shall address the immigration issue in light of the Torah’s views on the stranger. “You shall not wrong the stranger or oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20).Given that God commands us to be kind to the stranger for we were once strangers in the land of Egypt, how do we reconcile that moral imperative with our response to both legal and illegal immigration issues that have received so much attention? The Torah teaches us to be kind to the stranger regardless o f the legal status. It creates a bedrock value for Jews over history to welcome the stranger. This value also impacts Israel today with the influx of illegal immigrants from Asia, Africa and China.
We Jews understand the importance of immigration to our spiritual heritage. Quite a few within our own congregation are immigrants arriving here during the period of Nazism.  Other congregants come from Israel and the Former Soviet Union. The experience of being an immigrant is part and parcel of our spiritual DNA as any value can be embedded into our consciousness. Yet, since most of us are second and third generation Americans is our perspective towards non-Jewish and illegal new arrivals different than how we view Jewish immigration? My own belief is that before we make a decision on people who are poor and who are illegal immigrants we should familiarize ourselves with Jewish history and ethos regarding our own values towards treating the stranger in our midst.
We have witnessed a movement in our country to modify and restrict illegal immigration in states like Arizona, Alabama and South Carolina. We have witnessed the President and the Congress over the last two administrations attempt and fail at enacting comprehensive Immigration Reform. Lots of debate and accusations all the way around with regard to the legislation and the debate as to how best to protect our borders and differentiate between legal and illegal immigration. Certainly we have seen the depth of bad will that spreads when these issues are stoked by pending state legislation as well as by the intended and unintended consequences of an unstable and volatile economy. These factors pull apart the social fabric of our country.
Of course we are not the only nation that struggles with these kinds of issues. It is even more ironic to watch Israel, which like America, is a nation of immigrants. The idea of settling new Jewish immigrants is part and parcel of Israel’s mission and its strength for the future. But the Israelis have problems with non-Jews who come from far flung nations such as the Philippines, Somalia, China and other nations. These people who yearn for a livelihood come to Israel’s prosperous economy. Here Israel must face its own Jewish past when we were illegal immigrants to Israel in light of the British mandate let alone to so many other countries during the period leading up to World War Two. Now Israel struggles with what policy to adopt that is consistent with Jewish values of respecting the stranger in our midst and at the same time does not threaten the economy or Israel’s ongoing security issues and the Jewish character of Israel.
How do we react to the millions of illegal immigrants who have crossed our borders? They use our social services which we pay for and their children born in this country become citizens. Should we support state government efforts to close our borders and severely restrict potential illegal immigration? They are our landscapers and our dish washers and our agricultural labor and our apartment maintenance people etc. In an economy of so many unemployed can we really count upon the idea, as some presidential candidates have intoned, of self deportation? There are so many citizens who need a job. Must we act to rid our country of illegal immigrants so that we can return these manual labor jobs to the unemployed in our midst? Is that policy realistic? Is it right?
The Hebrew word for stranger is ger which derives from the root to sojourn or dwell. It refers to a person who has come to dwell in our nation who is not a member of that nation. In the ancient land the stranger would come to the nation because of famine or many other political or economic hardships. The Torah narrates the stories of Abraham and Isaac who both left Canaan to Egypt because of famine. Of course Jacob and his clan went down to Egypt under Joseph’s protection. In that situation we came in as legal immigrants but were then declared illegal and cast into a 400 year slavery.
The Bible tells us that the stranger must be accepted into our community. In fact they too were expected to observe the Sabbath as the Israelites. By reading the books of Chronicles which details much of Israelite history, we see how the Israelite kings used foreign immigrants for public work projects.
“David commanded to gather together the strangers that were in the Land of Israel, and he set masons to hew wrought stones to build the house of God. Solomon numbered all the strangers that were in the Land of Israel, numbering them were found a hundred and fifty thousand and three thousand and six hundred.”
 Israeli Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen wrote, “These strangers, migrant workers, were of vital importance. It was they who did the heavy manual labor, and it would appear that already then the Israelites themselves avoided such work.” Justice Cohen goes on to argue that Judaism has embedded in its spiritual reservoir the utmost respect for non-Israelite residents. And this fact of history and theology supports why we have been overwhelmingly sensitive and empathetic to the immigrants who have come after us to America.
One final piece of evidence comes from medieval Spain. The commentator Moses Ibn Ezra commented on the verse not to oppress the stranger.   He writes, “As a resident alien, he has no family roots in the land, so it would be easy for the citizens to wrong him whether regards to money or to housing, and even to oppress him by means of false testimony.  You must not wrong a stranger either, merely because you have more power than he.  Remember that you were once strangers like him.”
Does this not bear relevancy for today?  True we must make difficult decisions. Will we support efforts to purge or cleanse our country of these people? Will we come to grips with America’s ideal and its promise?  True, we must be honest about our feelings about Hispanics and other minority groups in general as we decide our position on illegal immigration. Is the best or proper solution for illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship? Or do we as a society continue a national policy of perpetual indecision?
The Torah tells us, “Have one law for the stranger and the citizen alike”(Lev.24:22). Putting both laws together is a political and spiritual challenge to keep this nation strong.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Torah Thoughts: Parashat Yitro. Environmental and Spiritual Sustainability

Parashat Yitro 2012

In the presidential heat of an election year, we listen to the debates. Two particular controversial ideas, for example, are the debt crisis and the unemployment rate. Regarding the debt crisis candidates challenges us to consider what we shall leave behind to our grandchildren with regard to the out of control debt that our country incurs each day. The same idea of what we leave behind to our future resonates when we hear about preserving the environment at the cost of sacrificing old and new jobs. The debate over the recent pipeline proposal from Canada to Texas that the Administration put a hold on is a classic example of pitting jobs against preserving the environment.
This idea of being aware of what we owe our progeny resonates for us in Judaism. In particular this week we observed the holiday of Tu B’shevat which is the 15th of the month of Shevat. It is a holiday that is growing in Jewish consciousness because it was established long ago to celebrate the trees and the benefit they provide us. Needless to say this little known holiday gives us a new perspective on the environment. We are all especially sensitive to global warming, air pollution and spoiling of the nation’s waterways. Again this holiday reminds us of the moral imperative that Jews should embrace as part of our stewardship to the planet to work for repairing the physical world –tikkun olam.
What is the key term today in the culture that responds to these issues? It is sustainability. Moral sustainability and economic sustainability and spiritual sustainability are all interconnected to the political and cultural climate of our country and to the world. Congregation Beth Yam can contribute to environmental sustainability by doing what we can inside our house of worship as well as for the community at large to contribute to preserving our pristine Hilton Head and Bluffton area.  On a broader scale Jews we have worked to support the Jewish National Fund which grows trees in Israel. Trees still need to be planted in Israel and the environment is still at risk in Israel with regard to water issues and particularly the drying up of the Dead Sea. Our children and grandchildren are growing up with the responsibility that environmental sustainability is essential for our future.
The underlying point is that we and our progeny will have to accept that in order to achieve sustainability for our economy, our environment and our spirituality that we will impose limitations on our desires to pursue our pleasures, conveniences and our way of life. That is the challenge we face as humans when we are also supposed to be caretakers of the world that God gave us. We have to do more with less is the ethos of our age.
I want to share with you a Talmudic story (BTa’anit 23a) about a man who lived in the first century of the Common Era. His name was Honi and he was a respected sage. Rabbi Yohanan asked whether it was possible for a man to doze off and dream continuously for 70 years. One day, as he was walking on the road, he saw a man planting a carob tree.  He asked him, “How long will it take this tree to bear fruit?”  The man replied, “Seventy years.”  He asked, “Are you quite sure you will live another seventy years to eat its fruit?  The man replied, “I myself found fully grown carob trees in the world; as my forebears planted for me, so I am planting for my children.
Are there not a lot of things that we do and work for in our life that is not for us alone but is for those who come after us? How many of us, for example, have addressed with experts the importance of proper estate planning? We all want our assets to go to our descendents and we want to know that our wishes and our values will be respected so that the assets are channeled to our loved ones. Our work, the product of our labor, is not just about us. The benefit is for those who we care about besides us alone. That is partly what sustainability is all about. We need to plant a future, like Honi, for our progeny that our economic, spiritual and physical environment will be fruitful for them as it was for us.
In this week’s parasha Yitro, God gives us the Ten Commandments. There is no mention per se about the physical environment in the Ten Commandments.  But idolatry and creating idols reminds us that when we think we can do whatever we want with our world and with our environment that we are subtly turning ourselves into an idol. In other words when human desires and human needs have no check upon them then we have built a Tower of Babel, an idol to ourselves.
When forget to respect the Shabbat then, for example, we have lost touch to let the land remain fallow and regain its resources to grow crops in the future. We have threatened our spiritual heritage of the Sabbath and our economic interests to preserve sustainability for the earth. 
When we forget to adhere to not coveting our neighbors’ possessions do we not risk unleashing unrestrained desires to acquire anything and to use any resources from our land for anything so long as it satisfies our consumption desires? Is that not coveting our neighbor’s possessions? When that happens have we sacrificed sustainability for unbridled consumption and, therefore, the future that Honi wanted for his forbears.
What is so important to realize in the connection between the Ten Commandments and the environmental sustainability issues is that our survival and our ethical standing requires us to impose limitations upon our wishes and desires.  The Ten Commandments are about God saying to us that we must accept boundaries upon our behavior. We are not totally free to live the way we want. For a society to sustain itself it must create and identify moral and immoral behaviors. That is what the Ten Commandments are about and what the rest of the mitzvoth demand from us. They teach us what God wants from us and they teach us how we can live as a community in a way that honors humankind and God who created us.