She looked down at her nursing baby and put her hand on the baby’s soft cheek. Her movements were so gentle, but her eyes were full of agony. I have shared in this circle on several Shabbats my experiences traveling to the southern border of our country to witness the situation for asylum seekers in Juarez and El Paso. But there’s a story from my trip to the border that I haven’t shared. Well, there’s a few of them, but one that has come back to me on this night. This woman’s hand on her baby’s cheek.
When we were in the shelter in Juarez, there was a row of women sitting and nursing their babies. Some were talking to one another. Some smiling. Some resting their eyes. But this one woman, our eyes found each other a few times. On her face was an overwhelming sadness. As she gazed down at her baby, hand on small cheek, she would cry—only for a moment, and then stop. She knew what was likely ahead of them and at least on this day, it had worn her down. My heart was with every person in this shelter, but this mother with her hand on the cheek on her nursing baby—that’s how my baby liked to nurse, lifting my hand to her own face, so I could touch her cheek while she ate. And I saw in this woman our sameness, and in her arms, my own child, and in her eyes the pain of a parent who only wants to protect their baby from harm. And the distance between us, and the difference between us, melted further away. And my heart was so deeply stirred toward action. Sometimes we call that empathy.
And sometimes we call that humanity. Dr. King might call it Beloved Community. The book of Exodus signals its power with just one single letter.
I’ll explain. This week, we start reading the book of Exodus, which holds in it our story of moving from oppression to freedom. And it all hinges on the Hebrew letter: “bet.” See, in this Torah portion, we meet this guy named Moses. Moses is born to a Hebrew slave, put into the water as a baby to protect his life, and is ultimately raised in Pharaoh’s palace. One day, we read, we find him stepping out to see how the people are doing. The text says this: “Some time after that, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his kinsfolk, vayar b’sivlotam.” Vayar, and he saw. Sivlotam—their suffering, their burden. He saw them being slaves, building things, being beaten by their taskmasters. But here’s the thing: The Hebrew should have said—vayar, and he saw, et sivlotam—their sufferings. But it doesn’t. It says B’sivlotam—in their sufferings. “He saw in their sufferings.” Grammatically, it makes no sense. So our commentator, Rashi, comes and asks—what’s with the “B,” Torah? And he explains—Moses didn’t just see the people suffering. He saw himself “b’” in their suffering.[i] He saw his own hands in theirs, his own breaking back. He saw his own fear, his own heart. With one little letter—with one medieval commentator, the book of Exodus teaches us that it’s not enough to witness another person’s suffering. We are called to see ourselves, and our story, our humanity wrapped up with theirs. And THIS is what calls us to action.
When you look at this world and the suffering of people in it, how do you see your humanity wrapped up in theirs? Sometimes we see ourselves, or our parent, or our child, as vulnerable as those suffering. Sometimes our suffering IS theirs, and we are in the very same boat. Sometimes we share a country of origin, a narrative, a faith, a skin color, a set of values—or simply that we are each human beings, fragile, vulnerable, capable of enormous love and grief, and created in the image of God. And in an instant, there is no more them and us, but only a we.
The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. might have said that what we have witnessed, and maybe even been part of, and MAYBE even built is the Beloved Community. This was Dr. King’s vision for the world. This tiny little “b” that Moses experiences, King would see as the remedy for an unjust and unfair and uncompassionate world.
To transform this world into a beloved community, we are compelled to replace inequality, indifference, and injustice with sisterhood and brotherhood. With a sense that we are all connected, all worthy, all equal. That no matter what we look like, how much money we have, our language, origin of birth, or the color of our skin, we belong to one another simply because we are part of this human family. And family protects and cares for one another. Family is accountable to one another.
We honor Dr. King’s memory when we build the beloved community with our actions and with our hearts.
This year, we as Union Temple, will have a chance to be part of building a beloved community here in NY State. In partnership with the social action committee as well as new members and veteran members new to justice work here, we will be participating in RAC-NY, which is the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism’s statewide campaign. RAC-NY works, in interfaith coalition with experts in the field, for a more just and merciful New York State. This is RAC-NY’s second year in existence and the first year that Union Temple will take part in its campaign. And this year—the campaign will be an attempt to pass legislation called Protect our Courts.
From 2016 to 2018, there has been a 1700% increase in ICE—that is Immigrant and Customs Enforcement—showing up at courthouses throughout the state. Undercover ICE agents are even targeting people in family courts and courts designed for victims of human trafficking. ICE’s growing presence in the courts has spread fear, making many immigrant New Yorkers afraid to attend court at all. This means that domestic violence survivors are too afraid to seek an order of protection in court, tenants are afraid to bring claims against abusive landlords, and witnesses to crimes are too terrified to testify because ICE is likely lurking outside or inside the courtroom door.[ii]
A person who is picked up by ICE could be arrested, detained, and deported to a country they do not know without even getting to say goodbye to their family. The Protect Our Courts Act will stop this policy in our state and protect our neighbors. And if you are so moved, you can be a part of it. Because we insist on building a beloved community here—not out of pity, but out of love and brother and sisterhood.
You may not feel so compelled by this issue—or maybe you are even feeling an opposition to it rising in you and you aren’t sure where to put that. That’s okay—it’s on us to do some work to discover Moses’ “b”—where we are in this story and whether our hearts can grow into this beloved community. So how do we access our hearts on this? By telling our own stories and seeking out the reflection of our own humanity in those who are suffering. In a moment, we will turn to a person near us and share our own story and listen to theirs.
So think now: What is YOUR story? Whether your family came here generations ago or just recently arrived. Whether you are or know or love or worry about a person without documents in your own life. Whether your heart is moved because you know that the immigrant story is our Exodus story – what tingles in your heart that helps you see yourself in this moment of suffering?
May we together be part of building Dr. King’s beloved community this year.
[i] Thanks to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Peter Stein, for teaching me this text.
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