Dvar Torah

Friday evening, April 6, 2018

Remember you were a slave . . .

Any notable experiences during Passover?  Any significant learnings?

Would like to share one from my week:

Often, when I begin working on dvar Torah, I think about the strands of news and events that have been running through the week.  These days every week is full of so many strands and therefore it is impossible to address all of them.

This week, three strands really stood out:  First, that Jews around the world have been observing Passover; second, the news and developments here in the US around immigrants and deportation, and third, the events in Israel, concerning the asylum seekers from mostly African countries  (of course there were other important strands, such as the fighting around Gaza; I will address that strand at another time).

First, Passover.  Every year, around the world, many of us go to great lengths to prepare our homes for the holiday, working hard to ensure that every crumb of chometz, or leavened products, has been removed.  We cook a big meal, invite family and friends, and try to make our Seder meaningful and fun and maybe even inspiring.  But why?  Why do we put so much effort into this holiday?

I came upon a comment on a verse from the Torah portion we read this Shabbat that brought everything into clear focus, and tied the three strands I mentioned together neatly.

“And you shall remember that you were a slave” [in Egypt], we read in Deuteronomy 16:12, part of the special reading for Passover. Commenting on this verse, Rashi said, “Only on this condition did I deliver you from Egypt:  that you keep and do these laws.”  In other words, Rashi says, only on the condition that you remember that you were slaves did I bring you out of Egypt, did I free you.  Remembering this experience is the central reason we do everything we do as part of our observance of Passover.

If we truly remember what it is like to be a slave, to not be masters over our own lives, to not feel safe, to not live freely, then we cannot help but feel the pain of those who find themselves in similar circumstances today.  We feel and understand that pain with such an intensity that it is our pain as well.  Except that we are now free, and they are not.

So when I and about 100 others (including Katie and Vanessa) stood outside the Northwest Detention Center on Sunday, and heard the stories of people who were themselves facing deportation, or were fighting to stop the deportation of their loved ones, their pain became my pain.  People who fled to this country in search of a better life for themselves and their families are not criminals to be put into a prison; just like my own grandparents and most likely yours as well, they simply longed to escape oppressive circumstances, to live in freedom with opportunities to improve their lives.

It is my sacred obligation to remember my own oppressive circumstances, the text tells me, demands of me.  I cannot just turn my back and pretend the injustice of criminalizing and imprisoning innocent people does not exist.  I must do something, even if what I do is a small thing.  Even if it is signing one petition, sending in $5.00, showing up at one protest rally.  Even if I’m not sure it will do any good.  That one small act is an acknowledgment that I remember who I am and who I am called to be.

Which points me to the third strand:  what has happened this week in Israel, around the 38,000 asylum seekers from mostly African countries.

You may not have been following the story; these days, it’s impossible to follow everything.  I’ll summarize what happened:

We all know that all around the world millions of people, perhaps as many as 65 million, have been fleeing their homelands, because of violence, civil war, crushing poverty.  Tens of thousands of people from Eritrea and South Sudan fled because of mandatory lifetime conscription or violence.  First they went to Egypt, where it soon became unsafe to stay.  So once again, they fled, hoping for asylum in the small, democratic country on Egypt’s border: Israel.  There they have been living, in deplorable conditions, mostly in South Tel Aviv.  They are Israel’s “undocumented immigrants”:  approximately 38,000 of them.  For months the government has been threatening to deport them to Rwanda, Uganda, or their countries of origin, or face indefinite jail time. 

Some argue that integrating these asylum seekers into the country will dilute the Jewish nature of the country.  Others counter by saying that fewer than 40,000 African migrants and asylum seekers will not threaten the Jewish character of the state, a country of 7.9 million.  And furthermore, deporting them blatantly violates the Jewish imperative to protect and care for gerim—the landless sojourners who seek refuge among us.

Leaders throughout the world had been urging Netanyahu not to deport the migrants.  Leaders of HIAS, the leading Jewish immigration advocacy group; the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; the National Council of Jewish Women, J-Street and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights wrote to Prime Minister Netanyahu and said, “We are asking Israel to do the right thing, the Jewish thing, to be a light unto the nations in the way we treat the strangers among us.” 

This past week (April 2), it was suddenly announced that the Israeli government had reached a deal with the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to resettle half of the asylum seekers in “western countries,” and to allow the rest to stay.  Within hours of the announcement, however, Netanyahu reversed his decision, saying that he would suspend the deal.  Then he lashed out at the New Israel Fund, an organization that works for human rights in Israel, and called for a parliamentary investigation of NIF.

The good news is that both in Israel and around the world, people have cried out in anger and outrage. A country that was founded by refugees and that played a leading role in the writing, ratification, and adoption of the International Convention on the Status of Refugees (1951) should not disregard its responsibilities toward those who through no fault of their own seek refuge and asylum.

Friends, what is happening both here in the United States and in Israel are different versions of the same destructive and calloused impulse:  xenophobia, fear and demonization of the foreigner, the stranger amongst us.  It reflects a lack of compassion and empathy toward those who, just like our own ancestors, both ancient and more recent, longed for freedom and better lives for themselves and their loved ones.

As Jews, our responsibility is first, to remember:  to remember that we too were slaves, that we too were strangers.  And second: to do something, even if it is small.  [I’ve made copies of some resources to learn more about these issues, as well as some suggestions for what you can do.]

וְזָ֣כַרְתָּ֔ כִּי־עֶ֥בֶד הָיִ֖יתָ בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְשָׁמַרְתָּ֣ וְעָשִׂ֔יתָ אֶת־הַֽחֻקִּ֖ים הָאֵֽלֶּה׃


It is only on the condition that we remember that we have been given all of the blessings that come with freedom.  Let us use that freedom, then, to work for the blessings of freedom for all peoples.