On the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall this past Saturday evening, I joined a number of rabbinic colleagues and our various congregants, in addition to our friends and colleagues from the Christian and Muslim communities, for a demonstration of unity in light of the increasingly emboldened face of bigotry and hatred. One of the speakers who particularly impressed me was Linda Sarsour from the Arab American Association of New York. When she finished speaking she and I hugged, because we realized that we shared our name. But in addition, we share our desire to live in a country that embraces the core value of respect for the dignity of human beings, regardless of religion, gender, sexual preference, or ethnic background. As she stepped to the podium, some hecklers across the street raised their voices in agreement with Donald Trump’s expressed intention (IF he were given the chance to implement it) to exclude all members of the Muslim faith from entering America. When the heckling grew louder, a number of us – Jews, Muslims, Christians, women and men – drew closer and surrounded her in support, as she recounted the pressure and harassment that the Muslim community has had to endure, and continues to endure, here in America, where she was born.
A makeshift menorah was put together for the occasion by Eddie Ehrlich, whose brother Danny is the VP of Keshet Tours, and is organizing our trip to Israel this July. Eddie spoke eloquently about his father who had been expelled from Vienna by the Nazis, and found refuge here in America. Then he lit the menorah, which shone as a bright light of freedom against the darkness of bigotry and exclusion. Each one of us is a descendant of immigrants. Some of our ancestors, and perhaps even some of us, came to these shores seeking refuge from persecution, and in some cases, almost certain death. Some came seeking the possibility of a better life for themselves and their children – a life of economic, educational, social and professional opportunities that were closed to them in their countries of origin.
In our Torah portion this week, Joseph’s brothers have made the long journey down to Egypt to escape the famine that was blanketing the land of Israel, and most of the Ancient Near East. They were new to this place and unfamiliar with their surroundings. They had to plead their case before the Viceroy himself, who appeared as a threatening figure to them. Only after proving themselves worthy did the Viceroy reveal himself as their long-lost brother Joseph, whom they did not recognize, as his appearance was that of Egyptian royalty. This is the Torah’s etiology for how the Children of Israel came to be in Egypt. As we will read beginning in January, the sojourn there didn’t turn out so well.
This is a different time and place. But hopefully we have learned the lessons of history. As American Jews we continue to stand up and raise our voices against the scourge of bigotry, ostracism and persecution that threaten our values at this time.
This week we begin the Joseph cycle within the Genesis narrative. Since his younger brother Benjamin has not been born as yet, Joseph is still the youngest of the sons of Jacob, the son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel, and, as the text tells us, “the son of his old age.” And, he was his father’s favorite. In defiance of convention, Jacob designates Joseph as the one who will inherit his estate and the leadership of his people. Joseph’s brothers are understandably infuriated. When the opportunity presents itself, they throw Joseph into a pit, and then sell him to the Midianites, who take him off to Egypt. Once there, he is thrown into the dungeon as a slave.
Cursed be the one who subverts the rights of the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. . . . (Deuteronomy 27.19)
In our sidra this week, among the litany of laws and statutes that Moses rehearses for the Israelites as they stand at the Jordan River is the admonition concerning fair treatment of the ger – the stranger. No fewer than 36 times in our Torah are we similarly admonished. You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 23.9). When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you and your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God. (Leviticus 19.33-34)
Dr. Fritz Bamberger, z”l, comments on this verse from Leviticus in the Plaut Commentary (p.803): “The ger, foreigner, who is resident in the land of Israel, must not only be protected against molestation but be shown positive love. . . Nowhere in ancient literature is there the deep concern with the feelings of the stranger that the Torah imposes on the entire community . . . .”
It is not my intent within the confines of this short davar to present a comprehensive commentary on the immigration quagmire that we can’t seem to solve in the United States. It is merely a brief expression of disappointment and dejection over the tenor of political rhetoric in our country as it has developed in recent weeks, particular with respect (or disrespect, as it were) to those people in our country who were not born within our borders. It is inflammatory, small minded, and mean spirited.
Just a recollection, if I may share it, now that we are approaching the Days of Awe. One of the sins listed in the litany as it is written in Gates of Repentance is xenophobia – fear of anything foreign. I remember that our High Holy Day guest rabbi at Union Temple for many years, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, z”l, never wanted to read this passage. Though his English was highly sophisticated, as we remember, somehow his German background kicked in with this particular word, xenophobia, and he claimed it was too hard for him to pronounce. So I read that passage. And I have to admit that it was always a source of some amusement for me, especially given the extraordinary intellect of the man. I won’t read anything more into Rabbi Schindler’s aversion to reading that passage, especially since he’s not here for me to ask him. Nevertheless, we do remember that he came to this country at the age of 12 from his native Munich, Germany, seeking refuge from the Nazi regime. During World War II, he joined the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division in the Alpine Ski Patrol in Europe, and later served in an artillery unit. He was severely wounded while fighting in Italy. But he recovered, and ultimately was awarded three combat ribbons for bravery, a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star. All his subsequent rabbinic accomplishments notwithstanding, here was someone who could have been viewed as nothing more than a “foreigner” in the United States, yet was willing to sacrifice his very life for his new country, and almost did.
Please allow me this brief statement of the obvious. Our country is a country of immigrants: people who have come here from countries far and wide seeking refuge from political and economic oppression, religious and racial discrimination and persecution, and simply aspiring to a better life for themselves and their families. We are their descendants. Every one of the public figures now speaking about immigrants in such degrading and hostile ways is a descendant of immigrants – foreigners. Ultimately it is up to us, I would assume, to let them know that their speech is disgraceful and unacceptable in the America that our ancestors, and even some of us, have worked so hard to build.