Tag Archives: refugees

Widening Our Vision – Lekh Lekha 5779 / National Refugee Shabbat

(NOTE: Congregation Beth Shalom was a participating synagogue in HIAS’ National Refugee Shabbat on Oct. 19-20, 2018.)

There is a whole lot of crazy going on in the world right now, but there are two things in particular that I want to draw your attention to. One is a new story, and unfortunately, the other is not.

But first, a word of Torah. Parashat Lekh Lekha sets forward the premise that we, the Jews, are a mobile people, and we have throughout our history, from the very beginning, had to pick up and move. That idea is embedded into one word for our people, ‘ivri, which appears first in this parashah.

Lekh Lekha begins with an imperative to Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham; Bereshit / Genesis 12:1):

לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ

Loosely translated: “Get up and get out of your land, the place of your birth, your father’s house, and go to someplace else, a place that is as yet unfamiliar. When you get there, says God, I’ll let you know.”

The last word in that verse, אראך (ar-ekka), is generally translated as, “I [God] will show you.”

Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, the 19th-century leader of the Ger rabbinic dynasty, usually referred to by the name of his major Torah commentary, the Sefat Emet, suggests that Avram’s departure from the familiar to the open-ended will enlarge his vision. That is, this is a journey about increasing Avraham’s field of vision, widening his perspective, by showing him a new land, a foreign land, where he would start again among different people who spoke a different language.

And we might read from this that we too, should always seek to broaden our perspectives, to reconsider ourselves and our place in relation to the others around us.

Back to the present day. The first item to consider is the tragic killing in Israel two weeks ago of two employees in a factory in the West Bank.

29-year-old Kim Levengrond-Yehezkel and 35-year-old Ziv Hajbi, employees at a factory in the Barkan Industrial Park, were murdered by a Palestinian electrician, a fellow employee.

victims

Now, of course this is shocking for the simple fact that it was apparently pre-meditated murder in cold blood. Our hearts go out to the families who are still in sheloshim, and (the 30-day mourning period following burial). But there is an even more tragic loss looming here, and that is the peaceful coexistence model that exists in places like Barkan, where Jews and Palestinians work side-by-side and enjoy the economic benefits of cooperation. The New York Jewish Week’s reporter, Nathan Jeffay, when interviewing another Palestinian employee at Barkan about the attack, managed to get him to open up about the tragedy:

The Palestinian worker digesting news of this week’s terror attack didn’t have much to say — until I touched a nerve. How can it be, I asked, that two young people are dead and some in Gaza are handing out candies to celebrate?

Suddenly impassioned, he tried to put his finger on it. “You know why they behave like this?” he asked rhetorically, sitting in the Barkan Industrial Park, not far from the terror scene. “Because they don’t work in a place like this. If Gazans worked here they’d feel differently.”

Jeffay’s article goes on to describe the ways in which the local Palestinian economy benefits from Israeli investment in industrial parks like Barkan: salaries are double or triple what they are elsewhere in the West Bank, and each Palestinian employee is supporting an average of 10 other family members. A manager at one of the factories, Moshe Lev-Ran, explains that from where he sits, he believes that “economics will bring peace.”

While we mourn for the loss of those murdered, I hope that the greater picture of stability and growth through investment will not also be shattered. I pray that those whose perspectives are wide enough to understand the value of cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians will not be eclipsed by those who merely want to kill the other.

The second story is the ongoing refugee crisis around the world. Here are some statistics (from HIAS’ website):

  • There are now 68.5 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced due to persecution and violence. 25.4 million of those are refugees in foreign countries, the highest number in human history.
  • 85% of refugees are being hosted in developing countries. This is largely due to geography; these countries are closest to the conflict zones people are fleeing. Turkey is the country that hosts the most refugees (3.5 million).
  • 57% of the world’s refugees come from just three countries: South Sudan (2.4 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), Syria (6.3 million).
  • Over half of refugees are under the age of 18.
  • During 2017, conflict and persecution forced an average of nearly 44,000 individuals per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere.

refugees

There are a handful of refugees here in Pittsburgh, although we know that the numbers of refugees that the United States has offered to take has been minuscule compared to those absorbed in Turkey, Jordan, and Europe.

How are the first story and the second story related, you ask?

We are living in a time of great social change. Many around the world want to protect their nations from an influx of outsiders. There is no question that this sentiment has driven Brexit, the rise of the nationalist parties in Europe, and of course the chaos of the American political scene.

Why should we care about this?

Shortly after Avraham relocates to Canaan, that land that will widen his vision, the Torah refers to him (Bereshit / Genesis 14:13) as Avraham ha’Ivri, the “Hebrew.” Rashi tells us that this moniker is drawn from the verb לעבור / la’avor, that is, to cross over, because Avraham came from ever hanahar, the far side of the Euphrates river.

Built into our very identity is the notion that we came from somewhere else, from the very beginning. And even more so, throughout our history, we have continually moved – from Canaan to Egypt to Israel to Iraq to Rome to Spain and France and Poland and to Iran and Yemen and Morocco and the United States and back to Israel. ‘Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, has been permanently on the move for much of the last 2,000 years.

And each time we picked up and left our birthplaces and our parents’ homes, we had to start over, building a new life, fitting into a new economy, new social structures, and so forth. And we gained new perspectives, many of which are recorded in Jewish text.

The Torah wants us to understand the plight of people who are compelled, whether by God or other people, to leave their homes and start anew somewhere else. The Torah wants us to broaden our perspective, to understand the challenges that others face.

And all the more so here in America, the nation that took in my grandmother when she arrived here in 1921, from what is today Ukraine, fleeing anti-Semitism and poverty.

Now you might be inclined to say, “But are Afghans my brothers? Are Syrians, many of whom are sworn enemies of the State of Israel and who are known to have high rates of anti-Semitic opinions*, are they my sisters?”

My guess is that when my grandmother arrived, she was not warmly welcomed by the citizens of Boston with open arms. We are a nation of immigrants which has long had an uncomfortable relationship with the idea of immigration. Ask the Chinese, the Irish, and those of African descent about becoming Americans. And let’s not forget the plight of the St. Louis in 1939.

hungarian border

The larger point is that wherever fear of the other reigns, we, the Jews, suffer.

How do we counter this fear? We need to promote Avram ha’ivri’s wider perspective to the world. We have to stand up against those who raise flags and claim Germany only for the Germans, France only for the French, America only for the “Americans” (I do wonder how the native peoples of this land feel about that one), Israel only for the Jews, and Palestine only for the Palestinians. 20% of the Israeli population (inside the Green Line) is not Jewish; they are citizens who work and vote pay taxes and conduct their business in the language of the Torah. One of the justices on the Israeli Supreme Court is an Arab Christian; there are 13 Arab members of the Knesset. They may not be happy about it, but they do participate in Israel’s democracy.

As Jews, we must stand for ‘Am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and Medinat Yisrael, the State of Israel. As American Jews, we must also stand for being Jewish and American. But our being Jewish and American and supporters of Israel does not mean that we should exclude from our vision those who are none of those things.

Just as Israeli investment in the West Bank helps foster a respectful environment for Palestinians to make a decent living and support their families, it also creates opportunities for Jews and Arabs to rub shoulders with each other. Peace will be won through planting the prophetic vine and fig tree (Micah 4:4) for everybody.

We cannot stand for the kind of nationalism that kills, that denies the humanity of the other. On the contrary: we must acknowledge that in supporting the refugee, we are actually performing multiple mitzvot: welcoming the stranger, making peace between people, and of course the mitzvah of tzedaqah.

And likewise, welcoming refugees here and around the world will create a world of better opportunity for all. It will infect us all with the wider vision of Avram ha’ivri.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/20/2018.)

 

* In the ADL’s sweeping international survey of anti-Semitic attitudes in 2014, Syrians were not polled, perhaps due to the unrest in that country. Nonetheless, rates of anti-Semitism throughout the Arab world indicate that about 4 in 5 citizens of those countries harbor some anti-Semitic ideas, compared with only 1 in 3 in Eastern Europe, and 1 in 10 in the United States.

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The Value of Life and the Jewish Triangle – Bemidbar 5776

I was struck by a curious item in the news two weeks ago: the gorilla that was shot and killed at the Cincinnati Zoo. (In case you didn’t hear: a 3-year-old boy fell into the moat surrounding the gorilla pen; the silverback, a 17-year-old, 420-pound western lowlands gorilla named Harambe, while not attacking the boy, did drag him around the pen, injuring the boy seriously.)

There were vigils, criticism by various groups, defense of the killing by the zoo spokespeople, and plenty of news articles and opinion pieces for and against. Social media exploded.

I am not in a position to judge whether killing the gorilla was justified or not. The zoo’s “dangerous animal response team” made a quick decision, and they opted for shooting to kill over using a tranquilizer dart, to ensure that the child would survive.

Harambe’s cousins in Africa are critically endangered, and zoos like the one in Cincinnati have attempted to remediate this situation by breeding gorillas in captivity. It is certainly unfortunate that Harambe had to die because of this boy. There is no question that this was a hard decision for the zoo, and that their choice would be scrutinized and criticized. We will never know what would have happened had they gone with the tranquilizer dart, or some other solution.

WesternLowlandGorilla03.jpg

Western lowland gorilla

But what actually struck me about this story was its context in the news. Around the same time there was a shooting with multiple fatalities in a neighborhood in Houston where I used to live. It has also emerged in recent weeks that the homicide rates in both Chicago and Toronto are up by over 50% this year over last. And of course there is the ongoing terror activity in Israel, which claimed four more lives in Tel Aviv this week.

And those stories are dwarfed by the largest humanitarian catastrophe of the last few years – that is, the Syrian civil war. Estimates vary, but perhaps 400,000 people have been killed in Syria in the last five years. And we all know about the refugee crisis here and abroad, driven largely by displaced Syrians.

What emerges when you juxtapose the flap surrounding the gorilla with those other stories is this curious situation where people – actual people – are being killed and driven from their homes, and yet the reaction to Harambe’s death somehow floated to the top of the news, at least on Internet portals.

It is fascinating to me that have become so inured to daily killing and human suffering in our own contexts, outside of the tightly-controlled environment of the metropolitan zoo, in the wild streets of Chicago or Baltimore or even suburban St. Louis, that we seem to have lost a sense for the value of human life.

Of course, it’s hard to wrap our brains around the killing of many; it’s much easier to be outraged by the murder of a single, rare primate in a single, tragic situation.

But it’s worth noting that our tradition teaches us about both.

All lives – the lives of all creatures – are endowed with a spark of the Divine.

We learn from the Torah in multiple places, and it is expanded upon in the Talmud, that we are forbidden from causing animals unnecessary suffering. This principle is known as, “tza’ar ba’alei hayyim,” (and I learned this week that the SPCA in Israel is called, Agudat tza’ar ba’alei hayyim – the association of [fulfilling the mitzvah of preventing] cruelty to animals).

But qal vahomer / all the more so, human life too is sacred, and one of our duties here on Earth is to alleviate human suffering wherever we can. Lo ta’amod al dam re’ekha, says the Torah (Lev. 19:16). Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow person. We have fundamental obligations to the people around us. And if Syria is too far away, we might consider just the people in our immediate environs.

Where, ladies and gentlemen, is the outcry? Where are the vigils for the victims of authoritarian regimes around the world? Where are the politicians calling for change on America’s streets? Where are the nations who are jumping over each other to take in those who have fled the Syrian chaos? Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany was the only head of state of the G-7 nations to attend the UN’s World Humanitarian Summit at the end of May, something which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon went out of his way to point out.

And where, indeed, are the Jews, marching to help ensure that everybody gets a fair break in life, a decent education, neighborhoods free of the scourges of crime and drugs and guns?

***

We celebrate today with two young women who have stepped forward into direct relationship with the Torah and its framework of holiness. And not only that, but we continue our celebration of that framework tonight as we usher in the festival of Shavuot.

We call benei mitzvah to the Torah in the synagogue, surrounded not only by family and friends because we are making a public statement: this child is now one of us; she has inherited the mantle of Torah, the set of holy opportunities to fulfill our mitzvot. It is, by definition, a public display of the stepping up of this child.

The most fundamental statement of bar/bat mitzvah is communal; it is that this child is now one essential vertex in the triangle of individual, community, and Torah.

A sizeable chunk of that triangle is dedicated to the acknowledgement that this is an imperfect world, one which routinely tramples idealism and continues to thwart dreams, but that we have an obligation, as individuals and communities in sacred relationship with Torah, to right wrongs, to uplift the oppressed and give a hand to the needy. Lo alekha hammelakha ligmor, velo attah ben horin lehibbatel mimmena. It is not up to you to finish the task, neither may you give up on it (Pirqei Avot 2:21). That holy work is never done.

One neat trick of the Jewish calendar is that Parashat Bemidbar is always read adjacent to Shavuot, a reminder that the Torah was given and received in the desert. It was not given in Jerusalem, or even in Israel! The message is that the Torah does not belong to a particular place or even (!) a particular people. The Torah, and the holy opportunities it gives us, are for everybody.

As we prepare ourselves to celebrate Torah tonight on Shavuot, we should remember that our opportunities for holiness extend far beyond our interconnected Jewish circle here in Squirrel Hill, and much further beyond the Jewish world. The triangle that unites us with Torah demands that we seek justice for all of God’s creatures, as we said on Shabbat morning in the Prayer for Our Country, “lemiqtanam ve’ad gedolam,” from the least of them to the greatest (Jer. 31:33).

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/11/2016.)

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