Our Torah portion this week, Mishpatim, sets forth a framework of laws whose purpose it was to create a fair and just society, within which everyone could live a good life, in security and peace. It is perhaps with a note of irony that we are reading this portion during this week, when, virtually all over our country, Americans have been gathering in auditoriums, houses of worship, colleges and meeting halls of all kinds, for “town hall” meetings with their Senators and Congressional Representatives, to demand that America live up to the American dream of a fair and just society for all. On Wednesday evening, Union Temple was filled to the gills with people of all racial, religious, and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations, to hear from Congresswoman Yvette Clarke, and a panel of experts on the environment, immigration law, the ACLU, health care, and Planned Parenthood, for a reaffirmation of our democratic values as Americans, and how to go forward during this oppressive administration, to make sure that we are protected and that our values are promulgated. We were delighted to be able to offer our congregation as a venue for this important gathering.
I was honored to be asked by Representative Clarke to deliver the invocation. These were my remarks:
“The portion of the Torah that the entire Jewish world is reading during this week includes one of the foundational precepts of our entire tradition: “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” No fewer than thirty-six times does the Torah repeat this admonition: “You know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
For Jews, it is out of our historical experience of bondage, of degradation, of being outsiders, that we are commanded to stand up, now as a free people in this world, and do better; to pursue justice, to create a society of fairness, to treat other people with compassion and respect, no matter what they look like, whom they love, or where they come from. And I needn’t remind you, my friends, that if there is one people who should know the feelings of the stranger, the outsider, the disadvantaged, it is we, the Jews – the driven of the earth. And thus it is we who are charged with the responsibility to do better. And we believe that not only we, but every human being, regardless of our religious beliefs or affiliations, regardless of our station in life; that every one of us has the capacity to do better. It is a fundamental optimism with which we approach our responsibilities in this world.
We are here this evening – all of us, of different backgrounds and traditions – we are here out of our belief that our country has the capacity to do better; to create a more just and compassionate society. This is our mission – to create a society of fairness and equality, of kindness and compassion, of justice, and of peace.
Yet above all, we understand that the responsibility of bringing our mission to fruition rests squarely upon our shoulders. And so we stand this evening, shoulder to shoulder, together with Congresswoman Clarke, and all her of colleagues – to realize the full promise of the American dream. May we go forward with courage, and strength, as we walk together in peace.”
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.