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ISIS, Refugees, and our Father Jacob

Updated version of a sermon by Rabbi Weintraub on Parshat Vayishlach 5776, November 28, 2015 (with thanks to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights for helpful information)

This week we continue with the stories about the adulthood and maturation of Jacob. In Talmudic and mystical thought, Jacob is identified with emet, truth. This is significant because he is the first man in the Bible who reveals the full spectrum of human emotions, from love to anger. He expresses his feelings, at times dramatically. For example, he meets Rachel, instantly falls for her, kisses her, and breaks down into tears.

In Kaballah, Jacob is associated with the sefirah of tiferet, beauty, which is balanced between the unbounded generosity of Abraham and the rigor and self-containment of Isaac. To be truthful a person has to embrace and balance competing emotions, mercy and justice, remembrance and letting go, love and fear. To be able to balance these emotions is the mark of a spiritually mature person.

I suspect that many of us, these past weeks, have been wracked by conflicting emotions. We are shattered as we see innocent, promising lives, many of them young, slaughtered by terrorists in San Bernadino, Paris, Tel Aviv, near Sharm El Shakh, Beirut, Jerusalem.

We see the growing power and reach of ISIS, and how its brutality, misogyny and xenophobia are filling the hearts of young Muslim Arabs with hate and their minds with the resolve to torture and kill. We are broken-hearted and we fear for our own safety and for that of family and friends here, in France, Israel and other places.

We feel scared and defensive, and also torn because we, as Jews and Americans, hear other voices, voices which tell us to keep our lives and societies open, to hope, to cherish freedom.

The savagery of ISIS causes us to defend, secure, protect. But their tyranny and violence, we also know, has caused waves of innocent refugees, and their images move us to openness and fellow feeling.

We are in fact now in the midst of a planetary crisis, with sixty million people displaced around the world, including seven million Syrians.

Last December 2, a three year old Syrian refugee named Alan Kurdi washed up dead on a Turkish beach. His photograph galvanized worldwide concern for the refugees. Jews in the U.S., Europe, even in Israel (which is in a state of war with Syria) began to open their homes and hospitals, signed petitions, prayed in Synagogues, donated to HIAS and other relief organizations, and lobbied lawmakers.

In the last two weeks, since the Paris and San Bernadino massacres, we have seen a backlash. Twenty seven governors vowed to deny Syrian refugees re-settlement, and the House of Representatives on November 26 passed a bill which would set up impossible conditions to re-settle any large number of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Now Donald Trump, a Presidential aspirant praised by millions for his putative strength and candor, calls for closing our borders to all Muslims.

I understand the fear and anxiety. I have lost relatives and friends to terrorism in Israel, and I officiated at the funerals and shivas for 9/11 victims here. So this is not an academic matter for me.

But there is also a Biblical text which I’ve known almost all my life but really understood only these past two weeks. The Torah reminds us thirty six times that we must love the stranger because we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Why so many times? These past 18 days I realized that the answer is simple. Maybe if we hear it three dozen times, we may finally listen.

When we cannot handle internal contradictions in ourselves and in our societies, it is tempting to project our fear and frustration onto the unfamiliar face of the stranger.
This is a natural, pervasive psycho-social process which has been with us since antiquity, and we Jews have been one of its greatest victims.

I think that this is a critical time for us, as Jews and Americans. Over the past seventy years, in the wake of the Holocaust, great countries like the US, Canada and Australia opened their doors to refugees when their numbers overwhelmed countries closer to points of conflict.

While bringing in these refugees is praiseworthy, it is not done casually. In our country, for example, the controls on this process are stringent. Refugees applying for re-settlement generally apply from abroad. They are not here pounding on our gates, climbing walls or blocking train tracks as they are now in Europe. Each applicant goes through a long process, in which they provide personal histories, family documents, fingerprints, photos, personal interviews, medical exams, and law enforcement, travel and immigration records. These records are vetted, I am told, by up to a dozen national security, intelligence, law enforcement and consular agencies. Refugee status is by far the most difficult legal way to enter the United States.

So, Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote after the Paris bombings that although hundreds of thousands of refugees have entered our country since 9/11, there have been no recorded terrorist attacks committed during this time in the US by refugees.

Our Torah commands us over and over again to welcome the stranger. As Americans, we live in an immigrant country. In fact, America is the greatest experiment in pluralism of which I am aware. We know how to make newcomers feel at home, vested, in ways that other countries do not. It is much easier to take on the identity of an American than to become a Frenchman or German or Swede, and that largesse and openness saved the lives and dignity of our parents and grandparents.

As Jews we benefitted from this country’s relatively open immigration laws before 1923, and thereafter many of our people died in the Holocaust when the US and Canada closed their doors.

One of the saddest aspects of the “immigration debate” of the last two decades in this country is that the discussion has been framed almost entirely in terms of security, borders and terrorism. I appreciate that the Department of Homeland Security has to look at immigration from the vantage point of national protection, and I laud their work because it keeps me, my family, my community and my country safe. But immigration is not entirely a question of security. Today, very few voices are reminding Americans of the enormous contributions of immigrants to our economy, culture, and yes, our security.

Of course we need to defend ourselves. This is not just an American imperative. The Jewish mandate is also clear. We are told in the Talmud, “im ba l’harg’cha hash’keim l’hargo, if he comes to kill you, kill him first” (Sanhedrin 72a). The Talmud and later halachic codes also clearly state that when resources are limited, “chaye’cha kodmim l’chayei cha’veircha, the well-being of you and your family take precedence over your fellow’s” (Bava Metzia 62a). But I do not see either of these imperatives compromised by the admission of Syrian refugees now, especially given the strict screening of the re-settlement program, and the relatively small number of immigrants being considered for admission into a rich country of three hundred million.

This is a moment of decision, and also a test of our Jewish commitments. Since 1948, because of the blessing of the modern state of Israel, Jews who are refugees have a place to go. This is not the case for ninety nine percent of the sixty million refugees in the world today, who have no place to go. Will we speak up and urge our leaders to open our home to those fleeing some of the most merciless violence on the planet today, at no immediate threat to our security?

Nothing can bring back the lives lost in San Bernadino or Paris or Sharm El Shekh or Hebron or Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. But as these tragedies brought us closer as a global community, we can continue to nurture our interdependence as yoshvei teiveil, inhabitants of one, shared world.

We now celebrate Chanukah, and we follow the teaching of Hillel, to increase the light every night, although at the time of the Maccabees the oil actually diminished night by night. This is an act of faith and trust. At a time when we see around us darkness and evil, we refuse to yield to negation and despair.

The fear is with us and we can’t wish it away. Jacob, at the beginning of his journey to Charan (Genesis 28:10-22), and even as he enjoys an unmediated conversation with G-d, is still so scared that he attempts to bargain for his security with the Holy One.

Jacob, will learn, however, that to be a religious person is to hold fear and love at the same time inside oneself.

May we also gain this insight, and may all those who wander, terrified, enjoy Jacob’s ultimate blessings of protection and return.

Amen.

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