A 12-year-old boy:
“I’m hungry here all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger… I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me. I saw a child ask for more food once and the guard told him ‘No, you’ve had your ration.’”
A 16-year-old girl:
They took my baby’s diapers, baby formula, and all of our belongings and threw them in the garbage. Our clothes were still wet and we were very cold, so we both got sick.”
A 17-year-old girl:
“Three days ago my three-month old baby soiled his clothes. I had no place to wash them so I could not put them back on him…Since then, he has only been wearing a little jacket made of t-shirt material.…I have been told they do not have any clothes here at this place. I carry my baby super close to me to keep his little body warm.”
An 8-year-old boy:
“They took us away from our grandmother and now we are all alone. We have been here for a long time. I have to take care of my little sister. She is very sad because she misses our mother and grandmother very much…We sleep on a cement bench.
A 15-year-old girl:
“I started taking care of a 5-year-old girl in the Ice Box after they separated her from her father. I did not know either of them before that. She was very upset. The workers did nothing to try to comfort her. I tried to comfort her and she has been with me ever since. None of the adults take care of us, so we try to take care of each other. We spend all day, every day in that room. There are no activities, only crying.”
A 17-year-old girl:
“I was given a blanket and a mattress, but then, at 3 a.m., the guards took the blanket and mattress. Almost every night, the guards wake us at 3 a.m. and take away our mattresses and blankets. They leave babies, even little babies of two or three months, sleeping on the cold floor.”
A 5-year-old boy:
The immigration agents separated me from my father right away. I was very scared. I cried. One of the guards made fun of the kids who cried. I have not seen my father again…
A 15-year-old girl:
“A Border Patrol agent came in our room with a little boy and asked us, ‘Who wants to take care of this little boy?’…His bracelet says he is two years old.
I feed the 2-year-old boy, change his diaper, and play with him. He is very sick. He was coughing last night so I asked to take him to see the doctor and they told me that the doctor would come to our room, but the doctor never came. The little boy never speaks. He likes for me to hold him as much as possible.
These are a small sample of the words of children who are being held in camps on the southern border of our country. I wanted to find a way to ease us into these words. I wanted there to be time for us to get to know one another before I spoke so much pain into this space as we gather for Shabbat, the day in our week that is meant to bring us peace. But here are these urgent words and they are asking to be spoken. They are sharp-edged and they do cut us and so maybe, even as we wouldn’t choose them, we can sit together tonight in that pain with them and with the children who uttered them. To be witnesses to their broken hearts by baring our own. And perhaps in our Torah this Shabbat, we might find some words to carry us, make meaning for us, inspire us, teach us.
In Parshat Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, something terrifying happens to us as we wander the wilderness. In the middle of crags and rocks, with 600,000 souls, our water runs out—and it’s no small thing.
In one verse, we learn of the death of Miriam, one of the leaders of our escape from Mitzrayim, the land of our oppression. And in the very next verse, we read: v’lo haya mayaim laeidah, vayikahalu al Moshe v’al Aharon. The community was without water, and so they gathered against Moses and Aaron.
So our commentators come and ask—why are these two things connected—Miriam dies and immediately we learn that the people have no water?
Midrash explains that this juxtaposition comes to teach us that as long as we traveled with Miriam, we merited a miraculous well of water that traveled with us and slaked our thirst. We had endless water to drink as long as in our midst was this woman, Miriam. And when she was gone, so was our water source.
So we might ask—why would we merit water because of Miriam’s leadership? Why not because of Moses or Aaron—they certainly played a critical role in helping us attain our freedom!
So Siftei Chachamim, a 17th century commentary, explains—we merit this miraculous traveling well of water through Miriam because of how she protected baby Moses. Pharaoh had decreed that all the Hebrew baby boys be put to death, and so Moses’ mother, trying to save her tiny sweet baby boy’s life, placed him into a basket on the Nile to give him a chance. And it was Miriam who then stayed with him, watched over him, protected him as best she could, as his makeshift boat floated him farther and farther away from his mother.
To be clear—we were worthy of life-giving water because we rode with Miriam—who protected a vulnerable child when he was in danger.
Now, you might say—maybe it’s only because Miriam was protecting Moses, who was special and would become our leader, chosen by God to go to Pharaoh on our behalf. Maybe. I don’t know. And I don’t know who these children in the camps on our southern border will become. Maybe they will lead, maybe they will cure a disease. Maybe they will bring peace. Or maybe they are just someone’s baby, with soft hands and feet, a little belly, sweet eyes, and a beating heart. For Moses’ mother, that’s all that Moses was and for her, and Miriam was his protector when she could not be.
Our ancient tradition teaches us that our wandering people were able to live because someone stood up for the safety of a child. We hear the children crying today, and we could say: what have we done? We could cry ourselves, no doubt many of us do. We could be angry, we could despair, we could be incredulous. Or we could be Miriam.
Perhaps we can do for them what she did for baby Moses. To make sure they are not alone, adrift, abandoned. To be their protector, and put ourselves between them and those who would do them harm.
Good people can have varied and conflicting opinions about immigration laws. And we should, and we will, have those broader conversations here about what is just and compassionate. But today we are faced with a grave atrocity, being perpetrated against kids, in our names. Unchecked cruelty on children who are afraid, sick, and alone. As a Jewish community, we know the dangers of dehumanization and of separating children from their families—and so tonight, we will join with so many others in downtown Manhattan to be a sea of Miriams for these children. We will go with a message of love. We will go to watch over them, protect them, intercede for them, as Miriam did. We will gather and say: we will not go about our lives, business as usual, while there are children in cages without enough to eat, drink, or keep warm; we will not look away.
Now, rallies, and vigils, and protests, are strange beasts. We can’t predict everything that will happen there. People might say things or hold signs that don’t reflect our values or positions. I am often uncomfortable at protests or rallies and for our community members of color, they can be even scarier or more dangerous places. We recognize this. And also…those of us who feel we can, will go because we need to put our bodies in this place and raise our voices and be part of those who say absolutely not, not on my watch. And if you feel you cannot go, but wish you could, know that we carry you there with us. And if someone says something that doesn’t represent us, we’ll work it through together afterward. As for us, we will be Miriam and we will come with our message of love.
When the water disappeared in the wilderness after Miriam died, our text reads—vayikahalu…and the people gathered. And so tonight, we, too, will gather. We will sing, and pray, and chant, and cry and we will live Miriam’s legacy to protect these children as our own. Shabbat shalom.
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