The Torah portion we read on this Shabbat B’shalach represents the beginning of a long history about Jews as the world’s quintessential refugee nation. I remember a book published a few years ago referring to the modern state of Israel as the start-up nation. It is a fascinating read for devotees of Israel’s technological and commercial successes. Yet the much longer and enduring narrative of our people is that of the refuge nation. In last week’s torah portion we began the exodus narrative. This week’s passages from Exodus describe the children of Israel actually crossing the Sea of Reeds and heading out to the Wilderness of Sin.
They fight their own demons when it comes to facing the reality that leaving Egypt is going to be much more difficult than they first anticipated. Finally, we see the very beginnings of the military conflicts that the ancient Israelites will face against tribes who seek to prevent the birth of a new nation in the region.
If we are the definitive example of refugee nation for three millenni[a] then what does it mean for Jewish identity? The truth is that we have had to fight not only marauding desert tribes but also our own self doubts as to whether we could handle the transition from slavery to freedom.
This week’s Torah portion reminds us that the birth of the refugee nation has always been a spiritual as well as a bodily struggle. We became not only strangers to the tribes but also at times we became strangers to ourselves.The fact that we see the Israelites repeatedly appealing, first to Moses and then to God, to return them to Egypt exemplifies this unresolved conflict in the psyche of the people. They desperately want freedom, but something inside holds them back from fully embracing their new found freedom.
What we learn about refugees then and today is that being a stranger in a strange land creates a push-pull tension for the refugee. People are connected to their native culture, even if they never feel a part of the majority culture. They realize that they must leave, but it is still home, whether they reject it or not. So those past bonds, born in an unwelcoming culture, never leave the refugee. And that fear of change is always part and parcel of the refugee dilemma.
I cannot help but believe that because we are the ultimate refugee nation, we have a history of resisting whichever dominant culture we found ourselves living in the midst of in an attempt to preserve our unique culture and theology of being connected to God and Torah. On the other hand, we have turned away at times from Torah, regressing into mainstream culture, denying our unique cultural and religious heritage.
So when we became the exemplary refugee nation what did we do about it? We created, in later chapters of Torah, laws and statues about how we are supposed to restrain ourselves, and, especially how we are to treat strangers who are not one of us but ask to be part of the Jewish people. Furthermore the Torah mentions over 35 times the idea of our being a stranger nation, while, at the same time, recognizing that we were supposed to treat others better than we were treated during our years in the desert. Laws about treating the stranger with dignity and compassion and not oppressing them abound in the Torah. The genius of Judaism is that the texts bequeath us an ethos of compassion as to how we should treat other refugee peoples as well as ourselves.
That is part of the struggle which we Jews are dealing with these days with regard to immigration and national security issues today. We have embedded within us this time honored ethos to go out of our way to provide sanctuary for other refugee peoples, even if others did nothing for us. On the other side, the conflict that we fear from experience is that there were tribes like the Amalekites then and ISIS now who will, as they did in the Torah, strike us from behind. We are vulnerable that way and something about that vulnerability spooks us about letting refugees from parts of the Middle East into America. We know that sleeper cells from terrorist refugees already exist in our great land. We want to learn from history, and Amalek is a symbol of that betrayal and underhandedness that so many Americans are afraid of today.
We are going to explore this dichotomy tomorrow morning at our “Hot Topics Shabbat” when two of our congregants will present their perspectives on the meaning of being a stranger, in light of the pressures we face today about immigration to America. The exercise is not just to give their opinions on immigration but to explore Jewish sources and use them as a way of developing a position based upon their respective interpretations of those sources.
I spoke about this topic on Rosh Hashanah outlining the tensions for the Jewish community on welcoming immigrants from the Middle East. I reiterate now that I support a vigorous vetting for such immigrants and at the same time oppose quotas based upon religion. It is absolutely crucial that we, as Americans, do whatever we can to keep ourselves safe. At the same time, should we completely abdicate our nation’s ethos by closing the doors on those who deservedly seek refuge as strangers in our midst? I do not expect everyone to agree with me, but I do insist on situating my views within a specifically Jewish frame of reference. I recognize that there are valid and heartfelt disagreements on this policy issue. Right now the courts will decide this current issue of limiting immigration from seven primarily muslim nations, for us, and we will live with the results of the judiciary’s decision. This is the way we solve problems in our great nation.
People say we should avoid politics and religion. What does that mean? For a reform congregation and a movement that is dedicated to social justice it has meant, in my humble opinion, speaking out on major issues of the day. It also means not framing the issue in a partisan way, especially from the pulpit. I believe I have done so responsibly over the years I have served as Rabbi here and in the congregations I have served in my career. So I completely believe in not mixing partisan politics and religion. What I do not believe, however, is that we should ignore serious policy and social issues that go to the heart of Judaism’s ethical teachings about how we treat people in our society.
The exodus is our faith’s central narrative and it provides us with the platform to share Judaism’s ethos of humanity with the world. I respect the diversity of opinions about what our priorities should be in the case of opening the doors of immigration and welcoming the strangers in our midst. Can’t we have this discussion from a Torah perspective without it dividing us as a congregation?